Symbolism has been an integral part of most, if not all, religions around the world. It has been used to convey various religious concepts and ideas to the mass in a concise and artistic way. Christianity has utilized this technique in an optimal way in its art as well as literature. Generations of artists working on Christian themes have used animals, plants, colors, objects and even the human body to interpret scripture and traditions of this faith. While the different variants of the cross and crucifix are the most common types of symbols associated with this religion, there are some unique ones as well. In this article, you will explore 5 of such symbols used in Christianity and get an insight into their meanings as well.
Various paintings from the Renaissance period, especially those depicting the Nativity, the Sacrifice of Isaac and the arrival of Christ in Jerusalem, have donkeys in them. The donkey was considered to be the humblest and most inferior form of animal created. But it is said to have recognized Jesus Christ as the Son of God and was even present in the manger when he was born. This is also said to have fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 1:3, which mentioned, “the ox knoweth his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib.”
Donkey in the early ages was considered to be extremely auspicious by the early Christians as this animal had carried the virgin Mary to Bethlehem before she gave birth to Christ. The donkey is said to be extremely gentle and patient and does not get enraged even when made to carry extremely heavy loads. Its loyalty and love towards its master are appreciated in the various Christian texts.
You will find numerous mentions about the dove in the scriptures. It is said to represent the Holy Spirit. For ages, this has led to the use of this bird as a symbol of purity and peace. It is said that during the great flood, a dove that was sent by Noah from his legendary Ark, had brought back an olive branch. This meant that God had made peace with the humans and had let the water recede that was going to wash away life from the face of the Earth. Being an emblem of purity, the dove is often used on the top of Joseph’s walking stick. This declares him to be the chosen one to become the husband of the Virgin Mary.
In art influenced by this religion, the dove symbolizes the Holy Ghost. It is seen to be present in the representations of the Annunciation to Mary, the Baptism and the Trinity. This bird is also associated with the lives of a number of saints. While St. Benedict saw the soul of his dead sister journey heavenwards in the form of a dove, it sat on St. Gregory the Great’s shoulder while he wrote.
Christians believe that the lamb represents Christ himself. This gentle, innocent and pure creature portrays both the suffering and the triumph of the Son of God. This concept had been mentioned in John 1:29. Here it says. “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!”. It is said that when Jesus is shown as a “good shepherd”, where he poses with a lamb, it talks about humans being redeemed sinners. Another common representation of lamb in Christian art is with a cruciform banner. This represents John the Baptist, who was the first one to recognize the “Lamb of God”.
In some other artworks, a lamb is seen to be standing on top of a small hill. It is depicted with a nimbus behind it. The hill that the lamb stands on has 4 rivers flowing from it. This lamb is called the “Holy Lamb”. The hill it stands on represents the mountain of God’s house or the Church of Christ. The 4 streams that flow from it are the 4 rivers of Paradise. This is a symbolic reference to the 4 gospels that shall flow forever and keep the pastures of the Church on Earth green and refreshed.
Being a plant well-suited to be grown in the climatic condition of Palestine, grapes were widely grown even during the time of Noah. Hence the abundance of its presence in Christian art and symbolism is not surprising. A bunch of grapes with an ear of grain was often used to represent the wine and bread of the Holy Communion. Usually, grapes, just like the Eucharistic Wine, symbolizes the Blood of Christ. Laboring in vineyards is sometimes considered as the work of a Good Christian in the vineyards of the Lord himself. The leaf of the grape plant also symbolises the “True Vine” which refers to the Saviour.
As per Isa 18:5, the failure of the grape crop was considered to be evidence of the presence of God’s judgment. Not being able to yield a good crop of grapes was seen as the ultimate form of failure that people had to face because of the sins they had committed. Similarly, a good harvest used to represent abundance and prosperity that one achieved with God’s blessings.
“Extending an olive branch” is an expression that has its origin from the aforementioned story of the dove bringing back an olive branch to Noah. This tree has been of great importance to the Christians through ages. It is said that the “Tree of Life” that is there in the garden 9f Eden in Heaven is an Olive Tree. The mention of this tree is found in numerous Christian texts, but one of the most striking ones is in the ‘Apocalypse of Moses’. This is a Hebrew Apocryphal book that mentions Adams’ fate of dying from a disease. It also talks about how Seth gets denied entry to heaven and he can not procure the ‘Oil of Mercy’ that was needed to heal him. It further elaborates how this miraculous oil will be given only to the righteous ones in the end of the days.
Apart from the 5 symbols mentioned above, there are numerous others present in every nook and corner of this religion. Right from the majestic lions, dolphins and peacocks to the mythical dragon, different creatures find their place in both Christian art and Literature. Flowers like lily and rose represent various human values and emotions like purity, chastity and love. These have been later adapted into various traditions such as weddings and funerals and also festivals like Valentine’s Day. Colors too are an integral part of Christian symbols. While white represents holiness, purity of the soul and innocence, black symbolizes death. Christians consider brown and grey as colors associated with humility and earthiness and blue is commonly associated with the Virgin Mary. This is because this color represents truth and clarity just like the sky and hence symbolizes heaven.
Hope this list of the most common Christian symbols has given you a better insight into the religion.