Symbols in Christian Art

Symbols in Christian Art

A symbol is something that is used to represent a thought, a process, or something that is visible. In Christianity, symbols have been used widely to represent different things. These signs started being used after the death of Jesus Christ. They where borrowed from the art styles and imaginations of the Greeks and the Romans. They might be used to mark a certain festival or an event depending on the season and time of the year. In the early Christianity art, a number of symbols where used, either in terms of paintings/drawings or carvings (Werness 54).Some of the symbols used included the Lamb, the labarum, Fish, birds, and animals, among others. Each symbol had a unique meaning.

The lamb is the young one of a sheep. The lamb or sheep is known for its gentleness. Whoever was painted or drawn carrying a lamb or a sheep symbolized a good shepherd. This symbol represented somebody who is caring. The early Christians felt that Jesus was like a good shepherd who was caring about his sheep (Twining 141). The lamb in the Christian fraternity represents Jesus Christ (Twining 137). The Bible refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God. The lamb here symbolizes one who is very clean and without blemishes or sin. It also symbolized something acceptable before the eye of God. This is because; men of faith like Abraham sacrificed the lamb. Moreover, during the Passover, the sons of Israel slaughtered the lamb and painted their doors with its blood. With reference to the scriptures, the lamb is taken as sign of meekness and innocence (Werness 46).

Laburum is another symbol that was widely used in the early Christian art. The Laburum was a long spear that was overlaid with gold. It had a bar that made it look like cross. Initially, the Constantine invented it after having a dream during his battle with Maxentius in 312 AD (Werness 54). Constantine felt weak before Maxentius. Therefore, he prayed earnestly to God for a way forward in this battle. Legend has it that Constantine got the Laburum sign as an answer to his prayer. The letters and words that appeared in his vision showed that he would win the battle together with his army. The two letters, which appeared in the vision, were the first letters of the Greek word Christ, that is, “Chi (C) and Rho (R) meaning Cristos” (Twining 141). It was however, believed that Constantine worshiped the roman gods and himself was not a Christian even after winning Maxentius, though he was converted later. His signs where used in the minting of coins during those times, they later changed to other forms. This sign (Labarum) of Constantine provided the basis of using the crucifix a symbol of Christianity. It was incorporated in the design of the Roman coins, and it brought about an integration of Christianity and the state. The use of this sign by the early Christians indicated the power and belief in the coming of the Messiah (Werness 29). Fish, as a symbol, was well known to the Christians. Fish, is used several times in the Bible. For instance, Jesus is quoted in the bible feeding five thousand men with two fish and five loaves of bread. In addition, Jesus referred to his apostles as the fishers of men.

Birds were also used in the early Christian art for various purposes. Birds are winged creatures that can fly above the ground (Jensen 41). Indeed, each bird had a certain meaning among the early Christians. For example, the stork symbolized the coming of spring. The peacock was indicative of a church, vanity, or pride. On the other hand, the eagle was used to show God presence everywhere and his ever watchfulness (Werness 23). Indeed, it stood as a symbol of the non-moral character of the Almighty God. Another significant bird was the dove, which was used to represent peace and meekness. Its use is synonymous with the Holy Spirit as it is attested in the baptism of Jesus.

The anchor represented hope and it was a mark of the cross. In this case, it showed the hope the Christians had in the cross of Christ. The anchor is more like a cross, which made it more admirable as a Christian symbol (Becker 33). On the other hand, catacombs were used to show the temporal placement of the body before resurrection. This represented the hope of Christians in a bodily resurrection after death of the body.

Animals were used as symbols in paintings and drawings. For example, the lamb represented Christ and the dove represented the Holy Spirit (Fahlbusch 56). The symbols of Eucharist that were used in the Christian art included the anchor and the cross. These represented hope and security. On the other hand, the ship was used to symbolize the Christian journey of faith. In addition, the pelican was used to indicate charity (Werness 102).

In conclusion, early Christians used several artistic symbols to pass a certain message as discussed above. Indeed, these symbols had unique meaning depending on how and when they are used. At that time, people could understand the message conveyed by each symbol. These symbols have become synonymous with Christianity and some are in use even today, for example the cross.


Works Cited

Becker, Udo. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols. London: Continuum International Publishing, 2010. Print.

Fahlbusch, Erwin. Si-Z, The Encyclopedia of Christianity. London: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008. Print.

Jensen, Robin M. Living Water: Images, Settings, and Symbols of Early Christian Baptist. New York: Columbia University, 1991. Print.

Twining, Louisa. Symbols and Emblems of Early and Mediaeval Christian Art. New York: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. Print.

Werness, Hope B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. Print.


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