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Throughout history, symbols have been widely used as a form of religious expression. While some Christian denominations don’t use figures or symbolism to express their faith, others use them to show their devotion. Here are some of the most popular symbols associated with Christianity, and what they stand for.
The cross is the most popular symbol of Christianity. There are many variations and types of Christian crosses, but the most popular is the Latin cross, featuring a long vertical beam with a shorter horizontal beam closer to the top.
The cross was a tool of torture – a way to kill a person in public and with shame and humiliation. Historical evidence suggest that Jesus was executed on a “tau cross” or “crux commissa,” which is a T-shaped cross, resembling the shape of the Greek letter tau. However, most Christians today believe that he was nailed to a Latin cross or “crux immissa.” History shows that crucifixion was also done with a simple vertical post without crossbars, known as a “crux simplex.”
While many historians have noted that the cross originated in pre-Christian cultures, it was adopted as a religious symbol because of the execution of Christ by Roman authorities. In Christianity, the cross stands as a symbol of faith and salvation, as a reminder of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Another variation to the cross, the crucifix is a cross with an artistic representation of Christ on it. According to the Catholic catechism, it is a sacred symbol set by the church for Catholics on receiving God’s blessing. For them, the suffering of Christ depicted on the crucifix reminds them of his death for their salvation. On the contrary, Protestants use the Latin cross to illustrate that Jesus is no longer suffering.
Christian Fish or “Ichthus“
Recognized for its two intersecting arcs tracing the outline of a fish, the ichthys symbol is an acrostic for the Greek phrase ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.’ In Greek, “ichthus” means “fish,” which Christians associate with the stories in the Gospels when Christ called his disciples “fishers of men” and miraculously fed a large crowd with two fish and five loaves of bread.
When early Christians were being persecuted, they would use the symbol as a secret sign to identify their fellow believers. It is believed one Christian would draw an arc of the fish, and the other Christian would complete the image by drawing the other arc, showing that they were both believers of Christ. They used the symbol to mark places of worship, shrines, and catacombs.
Angels are described as the messengers of God, or spiritual beings who were used to deliver messages to his prophets and servants. The word “angel” comes from the Greek word “aggelos” and Hebrew term “malakh” which translate to “messenger.”
In the past, the angels also served as protectors and executioners, making them a powerful symbol of protection in some faiths. Orthodox Christians believe in guardian angels and believe that these spiritual beings are watching over and protecting them from harm.
One of the most widely recognized symbols in Christian faith, the “descending dove” symbol represents the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus during his baptism in the waters of Jordan. Some Christians also believe it symbolizes peace, purity, and God’s approval.
The descending dove started to become a symbol of peace and hope when associated with the story of Noah and the Great Flood, where the dove returned with an olive leaf. There are many instances in the Bible which reference doves. For example, doves were used by the ancient Israelites as a sacrificial offering in their religious rituals. Also, Jesus told his followers to be “innocent as doves,” making it a symbol of purity.
Alpha and Omega
“Alpha” is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and “omega” is the last, which implies the concept “the first and the last” or “the beginning and the end.” Therefore, the Alpha and Omega refers to a title for the Almighty God.
In the book of Revelation, the God referred to himself as the Alpha and the Omega, as before him there was no other Almighty God, and there will be none after him, effectively making him the first and the last. The early Christians used the symbol as God’s monogram in their sculptures, paintings, mosaics, art decorations, church ornaments, and altars.
Nowadays, the symbol is used in Orthodox iconography, and is common in Protestant and Anglican traditions. Some examples can be found in the mosaics and frescoes of ancient churches, such as St. Mark’s church and the chapel of Saint Felicitas in Rome.
A Christogram is a symbol for Christ composed of overlapping letters that form an abbreviation for the name Jesus Christ. Do you know different types of Christograms are associated with the various traditions of Christianity? The most popular are Chi-Rho, IHS, ICXC, and INRI, considered to be divine names or titles in Greek manuscripts of Holy Scriptures.
Another early Christian symbol, the Chi-Rho monogram is the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek. In the Greek alphabet, “Christ” is written as ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ where Chi is written as an “X” and Rho as a “P.” The symbol is formed by overlaying the initial two letters X and P in upper case. It is one of the oldest Christograms or symbols formed from the combination of letters of the name Jesus Christ.
While some historians believe that the symbol has pagan roots and pre-Christian origin, it gained popularity after it was adopted by Roman Emperor Constantine I as a symbol of his army, and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The medallions and coins minted during his reign featured the symbol, and by the year 350 C.E. it was incorporated into Christian art.
“IHS” or “IHC” Monogram
Derived from the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus (ΙΗΣ or iota-eta-sigma), the HIS and IHC are sometimes interpreted as Jesus, Savior of Men (Iesus Hominum Salvator in Latin). The Greek letter sigma (Σ) is transliterated as the Latin letter S or Latin letter C. In English, it also gained the meaning of I Have Suffered or In His Service.
These symbols were common in the Latin-speaking Christianity of medieval Western Europe and are still being used on altars and on priestly vestments by members of the Jesuit order and other Christian denominations.
In Eastern Christianity, “ICXC” is the four-letter abbreviation of the Greek words for Jesus Christ (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ written as “IHCOYC XPICTOC”). It is sometimes accompanied with Slavic word NIKA, meaning victory or conquer. Therefore, “ICXC NIKA” means Jesus Christ Conquers. Nowadays, the monogram can be seen inscribed on the ichthus symbol.
In Western Christianity and other Orthodox Churches, “INRI” is used as an acronym of the Latin phrase of Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews. Since it appears in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, many have incorporated the symbol in crucifixes and crosses. Many Eastern Orthodox Churches use the Greek letters “INBI” based on the Greek version of the phrase.
Christian Trinity Symbols
The Trinity has been the central doctrine of many Christian churches for centuries. While various concepts exist, it’s the belief that one God is three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Most scholars and historians agree that the Trinitarian dogma is a late fourth-century invention.
According to New Catholic Encyclopedia, the belief “was not solidly established” and not incorporated “into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century.”
Also, the Nouveau Dictionnaire Universel states that the Platonic trinity, which can be found in all the ancient pagan religions, influenced the Christian churches. Nowadays, many Christians incorporate the belief into their faith, and many symbols have been created such as Borromean Rings, Triquetra, and Triangle to represent the Trinity. Even the Shamrock is often used as a natural symbol of the Trinity.
A concept taken from mathematics, the Borromean rings are three interlocking circles that represent the divine trinity, where God is made up of three persons who are co-equal. An association can be traced back to Saint Augustine, where he described how three gold rings could be three rings but of one substance. St. Augustine was a theologian and philosopher who helped lay the foundation of medieval and modern Christian belief.
Triquetra (Trinity Knot)
Known for its tri-cornered shape consisting of three interconnected arcs, “triquetra” symbolized the Trinity to early Christians. It is suggested that the symbol is based on the Christian fish or ichthus symbol. Some historians say that the Triquetra has a Celtic origin, while others believe it can be traced back around 500 B.C.E. Nowadays, the symbol is often used in a Christian context to represent the Trinity.
Geometric shapes have been part of religious symbolism for thousands of years. In Christian Orthodox beliefs, the triangle is one of the earliest representations of the Trinity, where three corners and three sides symbolize one God in three persons.
In Orthodox Christianity, the anchor symbol represents hope and steadfastness. It became popular because of its close resemblance to the cross. In fact, an “anchor cross” was seen on the vestments of an archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church. The symbol was found in the catacombs of Rome and old gems, and some Christians still wear anchor jewelry and tattoos to express their faith.
The flame represents God’s presence, which is why churches use candles to symbolize Christ as the “Light of the World.” In fact, representations of light such as flames, lamps, and candles became common symbols of Christianity. Most believers associate it with the guidance and direction of God. In some Christian denominations, the sun is a representation of Jesus as the “the light” and the “Sun of Righteousness.”
The Globus Cruciger features a globe with a cross placed upon it. The globe represents the world while the cross represents Christianity – together, the image symbolizes the spread of Christianity to all parts of the world. This symbol was highly popular during the Medieval period, and was used in royal regalia, in Christian iconography and during the crusades. It demonstrated that the monarch was the executor of God’s will on earth and he who held the Globus Cruciger had the divine right to rule.
While the cross is the most recognized symbol of Christianity today, other symbols like ichthus, descending dove, alpha and omega, along with Christograms and Trinity signs have always played an important role in Christian religion, uniting their faith, traditions, and beliefs. These symbols continue to be highly popular in Christian circles and are often featured in jewelry, artwork, architecture and clothing, to name a few.