Catholic CornucopiadCheney

4. The Origin of Christian Symbolism

Catholic Customs and Symbols

“The power of symbolism,” writes Dr. Heuser in The Ecclesiastical Review, “to teach truth and to educate at once mind and heart is attested by the divinely inspired use of it in the doctrinal and moral books of Holy Writ. The highest form of wisdom in the Old Law finds its apt expression only in parables. Later on, at the opening of a New Dispensation, the Eternal Father attests the divine mission, the intimate triune relation of the Messiah, by the symbol of a dove, and the special protection of the Divine Spirit over the newly established Church is symbolized by the tongues of fire . . . and the Church from her infancy . . . imparts doctrine in her ritual and teaches virtue by the silent eloquence of true religious art.”

Constantly intermingling with pagans in the necessary relationships of life, the early Christians had to be discreet concerning their religion and its doctrines. “But the baptized slave at the imperial banquet understood the reason why yonder patrician did not spurn his touch like the rest, from the image that was graven upon the seal of the nobleman’s ring” (Heuser).

Why should slave and patrician alike understand each other thus? The signet-ring of a Christian should, wrote St. Clement of Alexandria (about 215 A. D.) in the earliest mention of Christian symbolism, have an engraving of a dove, or a fish, or a ship, or a lyre, or an anchor, or a man fishing. He takes care to say that Polycrates used the device of a lyre and Seleucus that of an anchor. What pagan could object to such things, or suspect anything religious from them? Yet all of these had their Christian meanings.

The Dove, for instance, symbolized the Holy Spirit by divine choice at the baptism of Christ, and also that simplicity and innocence commended by Our Lord to His Apostles: ‘‘Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves” (Matt. 10:16). It recalled also the mission of the dove from Noah’s ark.

The Fish symbolized Christ, as we shall see later.

The Ship stood for “the bark of Peter,” and symbolized also the voyage of life.

The Lyre was a symbol of Christ, and also, according to Eusebius, represented the human body.

The Anchor symbolized the virtue of hope. In his Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul speaks of the promise made to Abraham as “the hope set before us, which we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm.”

The Man Fishing, said St. Clement, reminds us of the Apostles, who were, by the invitation of Christ, to become “fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).

“Few facts are more striking in the history of early Christianity,” writes Farrar in The Life of Christ in Art, “than that its records are so largely borrowed from the dark, subterranean places, where martyrs were buried, and the persecuted took refuge, yet that all their emblems were emblems of gladness,—the green leaf, the palm branch, the vine with its purple clusters, the peacocks, the dolphin, the phoenix, the winged genii, the lamb, the dove, the flower.”

Considering the finer of the pagan symbolisms as unconscious adumbrations of Christian beliefs, the Christians borrowed with freedom from that source. The peace and gentle sufferance of the martyrs suggested their Divine Master, the Prince of Peace, and “No pagan symbol, therefore, better accorded with their tone of mind than that which represented the youthful Orpheus bending the listening trees and charming the savage lions by his celestial harmonies. It indicated Christ as the King of Love and Peace, as the Law of life, and the Harmony of the world. Other pagan symbols adopted by Christianity were those of the winged Psyche, the Sirens, and Hercules feeding the dragon with poppy seed. The story of Cupid and Psyche, of which there are several instances, was chosen as the emblem of God’s love for the soul” (Farrar).

Symbolisms were, of course, taken also from the Old Testament. Christ declared, for instance, that His entombment was typified by Jonas. From the New Testament were taken the Lamb of God, the Good Shepherd, and the like.