Christian Symbols A to Z



Symbolism in the Christian Religion

Visual representations and signs - also known as symbols - are very important in the Christian religion. Christians may be called "people of the book" (meaning they are readers of the Bible) and "people of faith" (meaning they believe in unseen things). Still, imagery plays an important role in the Christian life. For instance, symbols incorporating colors, shapes, and numbers, can have significant importance in the right context.

While faith apart from the senses may be of primary importance in Christianity, believers recognize that God is also the creator of the human senses, including sight. Moreover, what is visible and physical can, under the right circumstances, be an aid to faith. For example, when Christians remember the cross of Jesus Christ, in accordance with biblical instruction (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11), they consume bread and wine (or similar elements) at the Lord's Supper. Faith is thereby supported by a sensory experience.




Christian Symbols


The Anchor

The anchor is a very early Christian symbol that has been found in the catacombs. It brings together the cross and the various nautical Christian symbols (fish, boat, dolphin), and it usually signifies hope in Christ. It is the symbol of St. Clement of Rome, who tradition holds to have been tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea.

The Apple

The apple represents sin, most likely because the Latin word for "apple" and "evil" are the same (malum). This probably explains how the general "forbidden fruit" in the story of Adam and Eve came to be depicted as an apple. When Christ is shown holding an apple, he is being represented not as sinful but as the "second Adam." (1 Cor. 15:21-22)

The Cedars of Lebanon

Because of its beauty and majesty, the cedar of Lebanon represents Christ. It has also come to symbolize eternal life because of its height and long life, and for that reason it is often planted in cemeteries. (Ezek 17:22).

The Chalice

The chalice represents communion and the forgiveness of sins.

Chi Rho

The chi rho is one of the earliest Christian symbols. It consists of the first two letters of Christ in Greek (XP) superimposed on one another. It is depicted in a variety of ways, and sometimes combined with the alpha and omega and other Christian symbols.


Circle

The circle, having no beginning or end, symbolizes eternity or God. Three entwined circles represent the Trinity, with its three eternal and unified members.

Crown

As a symbol of royal authority, the crown usually signifies Christ, who is the "King of Kings." (1 Tim 6:13) It can also symbolize the "crown of life," or heaven (Rev 2:10).

Cross

The symbolism of the cross is discussed on its own page (click link for more).

Daisy

The daisy developed in the 15th century as a symbol of Jesus as an infant or in his humanity, because it is more humble than the grand fleur-de-lis.

Dolphin

The dolphin was an early symbol used by Christians. Because dolphins swim alongside boats, they can represent Christ who guides believers to heaven. Dolphins were also sometimes used to illustrate the story of Jonah, and that association makes the dolphin a symbol of the resurrection.

Dove

The dove, especially when depicted with a three-barred halo, represents the Holy Spirit. When portrayed without a halo, the dove is a symbol of peace. The image of seven doves surrounding the letters "SS" (Latin Spiriti Sancti, "Holy Spirit") symbolize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, and praise (Rev. 5:12).

Eagle

Because it soars upward, the eagle is a symbol of the resurrection or ascension of Christ. By extension, the eagle symbolizes baptized Christians, who have symbolically died and risen with Christ. The eagle is also the symbol of John the Evangelist, because of his lofty and "soaring" gospel (it is much more theological in nature than the other three).

Easter Eggs

The Easter egg was borrowed from pagan springtime festivals, in which the egg signified fertility and new beginnings. For Christians, it also represents new beginnings: the resurrection of Christ and the new life of a Christian (baptisms often occur at Easter).

All-Seeing Eye

The eye, or "all-seeing eye," represents God's omniscience and omnipresence. From the late Renaissance, the eye was pictured within a triangle and with three rays of light to represent the trinity.

Fish

The fish was an early symbol of Christianity that endures today on bumper stickers and businesses as a sign of Christian faith. The fish is thought to have been chosen by the early Christians for several reasons: the Greek word for fish can be used as an acrostic for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior," it would not be an obvious Christian symbol to persecutors, and Jesus' ministry is associated with fish in that he chose several fishermen to be his disciples and declared he would make them "fishers of men." It is said that during the persecution of the early church, a Christian meeting someone new would draw a single arc in the sand. If the other person was a Christian, he or she would complete the drawing of a fish with a second arc. If the second person was not a Christian, the ambiguity of the drawing would not reveal the first person as a Christian.

Lily

The fleur-de-lis, a stylized lily design, represents several ideas: purity, and therefore also the Virgin Mary; royalty, because it was adopted as a royal symbol by the kings of France; and the Trinity because of its shape.

Halo

The halo (or nimbus) is the gold circle drawn behind the heads of figures in Christian art. Generally, the halo represents holiness. The circle represents eternity or eternal life. The halo with three bars (as seen at right) signifies a member of the Trinity.

Lamb

In Christian symbolism, the lamb represents Jesus, "the lamb of God" (agnus Dei). (Jn 1:29, Rev 5:12) Standing with a banner, the lamb represents the risen Christ triumphant over death. Standing with a cross and a gash in its side, it symbolizes the passion of Christ. Seated on a throne or a book, the lamb represents the judgment of Christ. Because the lamb is humble, gentle, and innocent, lambs are often engraved on the tombstones of children.

Oil

In the Old Testament, oil was a sign of consecration to God. Both the altar in the temple (Lev. 8:10) and the heads of kings (1 Sa 10:1; Ps 89:20) were anointed with oil.

Oak

The oak is a symbol of steadfastness, especially in times of persecution.

Ox

The ox symbolizes strength and service. A winged ox is the symbol of St. Luke the Evangelist because of his emphasis on the sacrifice of Christ.

Palm Branches

Palm branches were used by the Romans as a symbol of victory, and were adopted by the Christians as a similar symbol. Martyrs are sometimes portrayed holding palm branches as a sign of their victory over death. In the Gospels, the crowd lauded Christ with palm branches at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, so they are also a symbol of Christ's passion. Palm branches naturally are a central symbol used on Palm Sunday.

Peacocks

Peacocks signify immortality because of the myth that their flesh does not decay after death. They sometimes also depict human vanity because of the way they strut and display their plumage.

Pelican

Legend has it that, in times of famine, a mother pelican will pluck her own breast and feed her young with her blood, resulting in her death. The pelican is thus an apt symbol for the crucifixion of Christ, which he suffered willingly for the sake of the church.

The Phoenix

The phoenix, a mythical creature who bursts into flames at death but rises again from its own ashes, was adopted by the early Christians as a fitting symbol of the resurrection, especially the resurrection of Christ.

Plumb Line

A plumb line represents judgment (Amos 7:7-8). Christ is sometimes portrayed holding a plumb line in his role as the Judge.

Pomegranate

The pomegranate, with its many seeds unified in one fruit, symbolizes the universal church.

Poppy

The poppy signifies sleep, ignorance, and indifference, and is most often used to represent the sleep of death. Thus it can often be seen in depictions of the crucifixion or the death of a saint.

Rooster

Because of the Gospel story in which the rooster crowed three times after Peter betrayed Jesus, the rooster is usually a symbol of infidelity, especially in times of persecution. On the other hand, the rooster can represent the positive attribute of watchfulness or vigilance because it rises early in the morning.

Scales

Scales represent the final judgment. They are associated with the Archangel Michael, who is believed to be involved in the task of judgment.

Scroll

A scroll may represent the Old Testament, the names of the elect, or the gift of writing (when pictured with a saint).

Shamrock

The shamrock symbolizes the Trinity and St. Patrick's Day. Legend has it that St. Patrick used it to teach the Irish about the trinity, since it has one leaf and three at the same time.

Shell

A shell, usually a scallop, with three drops of water symbolizes water baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The shell on its own usually symbolizes pilgrimage or travel.

Ship

The ship signifies the church, conveying its members to safe harbor. It may derive from Noah's ark or Jesus' calming of the storm (Mk 4:37).

Skull

As in most contexts, a skull represents death. When shown at the foot of the cross, it illustrates St. Paul's declaration that "as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive." (1 Co 15:22).

Square

The square signifies the number four, and therefore the concepts symbolized by that number. When used in place of a halo, it designates that the person depicted is still living (since it is the number of earth).

Stag

The stag symbolizes purity and devotion, or safety in God's care. (Ps 42:1, 18:33).

Triangle

The triangle, with its three sides and three points, represents the Trinity, as does the trefoil (also pictured at left).

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References
  1. Color illustrations on this page are the work of Walter E. Gast.
  2. Carolle E. Whittenmore, ed., Symbols of the Church.
  3. W.E. Post, Saints, Signs, and Symbols.
  4. George Wells Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art.
  5. Frederick Rest, Our Christian Symbols.