Ancient Christian symbols have existed from the beginning of Christianity, ranging from animals that represented central teachings to Greek letters. The reasons behind these powerful Christian symbols vary. Some symbols emerged to communicate Christian persecution. Sometimes discreetly, they explained something in shorthand. Other times, the religious symbol was simply an easier way to comprehend the religion itself.
Let us check out some of the famous ancient Christian symbols:
Cross and Crucifix
The Crucifix is a cross with a corpus used by the Catholic Church, Lutheranism, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Anglicanism. There was opposition by some Protestant churches, such as the Church of the East and the Armenian Apostolic Church, which uses merely a bare cross.
By the 2nd century, the shape of the cross, as symbolised by T, became a “seal” or sign of Early Christianity. It is referenced in the Octavius of Minucius Felix around the end of the second century, refuting critics’ claims that Christians worship the cross. The letter T signifies the cross (Crucifix, Greek stauros) throughout this period. While early Christians employed the T-shape to depict the cross in writing and gesture, it wasn’t until the end of Late Antiquity that the Greek and Latin crosses, i.e. crosses with intersecting beams, began to appear in Christian art.
The St Thomas Cross, a Greek cross with clover leaf edges popular in southern India, has been found dating back to the 6th century.
The first appearance of the Patriarchal Cross, a Latin cross with an additional horizontal bar, dates from the 10th century.
The Celtic cross is typically distinguished by a circle outline on which a cross, stylised in pre-medieval Celtic style, appears superimposed. The Celtic Cross resembles the Christian Cross; however, the Celtic Cross motif is at least 3,000 years older than Christianity. It takes the shape of finely sculpted, vertically orientated ancient monoliths that can still be found in various areas across Ireland today.
Unlike Christian Cross imagery connected with the shape of a crucifix, the Celtic Cross’s design roots are unknown. Yet, for at least 5,000 years, the Celtic Cross existed in sculpture as a significant feature of the manufactured Irish landscape.
Following the Christianization of Ireland, the Celtic Cross and the Christian Cross are so close in shape that the former was quickly absorbed by Irish Catholic culture. In pre-Christian, Druidic Ireland, the Celtic cross is appropriately defined as an ancient emblem of cultural significance. It is also employed as a symbolic icon of Christian interpretation, which is unique to Irish culture. It combines pre-Christian Celtic heritage and Irish Druidic iconography with Christian customs and iconography.
Although early Christians utilised the cross as a symbol, crucifixes, or portrayals of the crucifixion scene, were uncommon before the 5th century. However, the alleged finding of the True Cross by Constantine’s mother, Helena, and the subsequent establishment of Golgotha as a pilgrimage place resulted in a shift in mindset.
Like many authentic early mediaeval processional crosses in goldsmith’s work, the plain cross became represented as the crux gemmata, decked with jewels, in the early mediaeval period. The “S”-shaped slumped body form was developed in Byzantine art, where the first portrayals of crucifixion depicting anguish are thought to have originated. The Gero Cross and the Cross of Lothair, both from the end of the 10th century, are early Western examples.
The sign of the fish appears to have been the most important among the early Christians’ symbols. The Ichthys or ichthus is a symbol made up of two crossing arcs with the ends of the right side extending beyond the meeting point to resemble a fish’s profile. Early Christians embraced the emblem as a hidden symbol. It’s now known as the “symbol of the fish” or the “Jesus fish” in popular parlance.
The ichthys initially appeared in Christian art and literature in the second century. By the late 2nd century, the emblem became popular among Christians, and its use had spread widely in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The ichthys emblem had “the most sacred meaning” in early Christian history. Christians used it to identify churches and other believers when the Roman Empire persecuted them. The famous acrostic comprised of the initial letters of five Greek words, creating the word for fish (Ichthus).
Alpha and Omega
These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and a title of Christ and God in the Book of Revelation. This combination of letters is often coupled with the Cross, Chi-rho, or other Christian symbols as a Christian symbol. Many Christians say it signifies that Jesus has existed for all eternity or that God is eternal. The juxtaposition of the letters Alpha and Omega is frequently utilised as a Christian visual symbol. Early Christian art depicted the letters hanging from the arms of the cross, and some cruise gemmates, precious metal jewelled crosses, have formed letters hanging in this way, called pendilia. An example is the Asturian coat of arms, which is based on the Asturian Victory Cross. Although the letters were always written in Greek. They became more prevalent in Western Orthodox Christian art than in Eastern Orthodox Christian art.
The Staurogram, also known as the Monogrammatic Cross or Tau-Rho sign, is made up of a tau placed over a rho. In highly early New Testament manuscripts, the Staurogram was initially employed to shorten the Greek word for cross, somewhat like a nomen sacrum, and may have visually represented Jesus on the crucifixion.
The Greek word “help” has the same numerological meaning in Greek as the letter rho, according to Ephrem the Syrian, who interpreted these two united letters in the 4th century. The emblem reflects the belief that the Cross saves in this way. In early Christian ossuaries, the letters tau and rho can also be found alone as symbols. In the 5th and 6th centuries, the Monogrammatic Cross was recognised as a version of the Chi-Rho symbol, and it expanded throughout Western Europe.
The Chi Rho is an early type of Christogram made by superimposing the first two (capital) letters of the Greek word O (Christos) so that the vertical stroke of the rho crosses the centre of the chi.
The Chi-Rho symbol was employed as part of Roman Emperor Constantine I. The Labarum was the name of Constantine’s standard. In addition, the Staurogram and the IX monogram were early symbols that were comparable to the Chi-Rho.
The Chi-Rho sign was also used in pre-Christian periods to indicate an especially valuable or relevant text in the margin of a page, abbreviated as Christon. A Chi-Rho was found on certain coins of Ptolemy III Euergetes. Despite being composed of Greek characters, the device (or its portions) is frequently used as an abbreviation in Latin literature, with suitable endings added to a Latin noun, such as XP, which stands for Christo, “to Christ,” the dative form of Christus.
The Greek letters iota and eta, sometimes overlaid one on top of the other, or the numeric value of 18 in Greek, were a well-known and very early way of depicting Christ. This symbol has already been explained by Barnabas’ Epistle and Clement of Alexandria.
Superimposing the first (capital) letters of the Greek words for Jesus and Christ, iota and chi X, to construct an early form of the monogram of Christ seen in early Christian ossuaries in Palaestina, this monogram means “Jesus Christ.”
The Good Shepherd
The Good Shepherd, typically depicted with a sheep on his shoulders, is the most prevalent of the symbolic images of Christ found in the Catacombs of Rome, and it is linked to the Parable of the Lost Sheep. It was first interpreted as a sign, similar to those seen in Early Christian art. However, by the fifth century, the figure resembled the traditional portrayal of Christ. It later evolved into a halo and expensive clothes.
The dove frequently appears in ancient ecclesiastical art as a Christian symbol. According to Matthew 3:16, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and rested on Jesus during his baptism. As a result, the dove came to be seen as a sign of the Holy Spirit. It frequently appears in early baptismal depictions. It also refers to the Christian soul, not the human soul in general, but the Christian soul as indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Specifically, it refers to the Christian soul as having been set free from the toils of the flesh and having entered into rest and glory. The Peristerium, or Eucharistic dove, was sometimes still used as a Church tabernacle in Eastern Christianity.
The number 801 is the numerological value of the total in Greek of the word “dove” letters. It is the sum of the values of the letters Alpha and Omega, which refers to Christ, according to Irenaeus in the second century. After the deluge, a dove comes to Noah with an olive branch to signify that the water has receded. This scenario reminded the Church Fathers of Christ, who gives salvation through the cross. As a result of this biblical scene, the dove has come to be seen as a symbol of peace.
Because the flesh of peafowl did not degrade after death, it became a symbol of immortality for the ancient Greeks. Early Christianity borrowed this iconography, and numerous early Christian artworks and mosaics depict the peacock. During the Easter season, especially in the east, the peacock is still employed. According to specific views, the “eyes” in the peacock’s tail feathers represent the all-seeing God and the Church.
A peacock drinking from a vase symbolises a Christian believer drinking from the rivers of eternal life. If one views the peacock’s tail with its many “eyes” as the vault of the sky dotted by the sun, moon, and stars, the peacock can also represent the universe. The peacock is also associated with immortality according to traditional Persian and Babylonian symbolism. It signifies Paradise and the Tree of Life. The peacock is frequently represented close to the Tree of Life in Christian iconography.
The pelican was supposed to be highly attentive to her young in mediaeval Europe, to the point of injuring her breast to provide her blood when no other nourishment was available. As a result, the pelican has been associated with Jesus’ Passion and the Eucharist since the 12th century.
As the anchor is a symbol of protection in ancient times, Christians adopted it as hope for the future. The anchor existed in a piece of inscription uncovered in the catacomb of St. Domitilla, which dates from the end of the first century. The anchor frequently appears in catacomb epitaphs during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The most common anchor found in early Christian pictures is one with one extremity terminating in a ring adjacent to the cross-bar. The other is in two curved branches or an arrowhead; nevertheless, there are many variations. The anchor can represent hope, constancy, serenity, and calmness in general.
When Christianizing Ireland in the 5th century, the shamrock is supposed to have been utilised by Saint Patrick. He used it to explain the Christian dogma of the Holy Trinity.
The shamrock — a tiny plant with complex leaves, often made of three heart-shaped leaflets. A very familiar sight to the Irish – is said to have been employed by St. Patrick to demonstrate the Christian deity’s tripartite form. However, Christianity is a monotheistic religion, unlike many other tripartite myths, such as the native Irish Morrigan mythology.
The ordinary triple-leaflet, compound-leaved shamrock—which only has one compound-triplet leaf per stem—could easily represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, portrayed as one God. It is analogous to each of the three leaflets that make up one shamrock. In the 4th century CE, the traditionally Celtic Druidic island culture was converted to Christianity. Through the 6th century CE, Christianization profoundly affected and transformed Irish cultural practices and schools of thought.
Eye of Providence
The Eye of Providence, enclosed by a triangle, explicitly represented the Christian Trinity in late Renaissance European art. The Eye is sometimes seen in seventeenth-century paintings surrounded by clouds or sunbursts. The Trinity and God’s omnipresence and divine providence are still symbolised as the Eye of God. They appear in a triangle in church architecture and Christian art. On the backside of the 1 dollar, the Eye of Providence is pictured between the phrases “Annuit cptis”. It means “Providence favours our undertakings” or “Providence has benefited our undertakings.”
Elemental symbols were often used in the early Church. For Christians, water has a special significance. Water can also symbolise cleanliness or purity outside of baptism. The Holy Spirit and light are both represented by fire, especially in the shape of a candle flame. This symbolism comes from the Bible. These include the tongues of fire that signified the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and Jesus’ portrayal of his followers as the light of the world; or Hebrews 12’s God is a devouring fire.
In England, a lily crucifix is an uncommon sign of Anglican churches. It shows Christ being crucified on a lily or holding one. The symbolism may stem from the mediaeval notion that Christ’s Annunciation and Crucifixion took place on the same day.
But, regardless of the reasons behind the symbols, understanding what these old Christian designs symbolise may always aid our faith. Once we understand the symbols, it’s astonishing how often we’ll encounter them in art, Christian buildings, and even the liturgy.