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Home > Catholic Symbols: A Guide to their Meanings
Catholic Symbols: A Guide to their Meanings
A Guide to Catholic Symbols
Cross, Crucifix These are undoubtedly the most recognizable symbols
of our faith and an indicator that the wearer is a Christian. The
difference between the terms is that a crucifix depicts Jesus crucified.
Catholic Churches display crucifixes behind the altar rather than
a simple cross in recognition that it is in Jesus' suffering and
death for our sins that we have our salvation. A simple cross is
still a powerful image, especially to early Christians, as it claims
a symbol associated with torture and humiliation for the conquering
Halo (Nimbus) We often see this ring of light above or behind
a saint's head. The circle represents the eternity of God the
Creator and of Heaven, as the shape has no beginning or end.
As Jesus is the light of the world, the halo designates the
persona as having holiness by virtue of God's sanctification,
or, through their inherent essence (like Jesus). We also see
images of Jesus or Our Lady surrounded entirely in light: this
is called an aureole or a mandorla (Italian for almond,
due to its elliptical shape). When an image has both a halo
and an aureole, it is called a glory.
and Fire These are Scripture-based manifestations of the
Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of St. Luke, the Holy Spirit descended
upon Jesus at His baptism in the form of a dove, revealing itself
as a being of purity. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy
Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, first as a mighty
wind that blew through the chamber, then as tongues of fire
above their heads, showing its nature as also possessing strength
and providing warmth and illumination.
Fish The obvious reference is to the three synoptic Gospels
where Jesus called His disciples, once fishermen, to become fishers
of men. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word for
ichthys--the root for ichthyology, the study of fish. The
persecuted early Christians used the word as an acronym to secretly
identify themselves as followers of the faith, each letter of the
Greek representing the phrase "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior."
The symbol for the cleansing and renewal that comes
with Baptism. When we enter a Church and make the Sign of the Cross
with holy water, we are recalling and renewing our own Baptism.
As such, anyone can perform emergency Baptisms on another simply
by marking the person with the Sign of the Cross, in the name of
the Trinity, with any water nearby.
Snake, Serpent This stands for the presence of sin, temptation,
and the devil, as first seen in Genesis. In many depictions of Our
Lady, we see her squashing the serpent beneath her feet as the new
Eve who is mightier than the devil.
Shepherd, Shepherd's Crook This imagery can be seen throughout Scripture, showing
the pastoral relationship between God and His people. In the Gospel
of St. John, Jesus calls Himself the good shepherd who lays down
his life for his sheep. The lamb is of particular importance because
of its connotations as a young or infant--therefore helpless--offspring
of a sheep, which was offered in ritual sacrifice.
Keys In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus commissioned
St. Peter as the successor of His ministry on Earth, giving him
the keys to Heaven. The keys have come to symbolize the papacy because
of its ties to St. Peter, the first pope, and the legitimacy of
the Catholic Church as the one true faith established by Jesus himself
through this charge.
Sacred Heart of Jesus,
Immaculate Heart of Mary
In these portrayals of Jesus and Mary, we see them pointing at their
ever-loving and self-sacrificing hearts. Jesus' Sacred Heart is
typically wrapped in thorns, with a bleeding wound from the Centurion's
lance, topped with a cross and flames--the entire heart with a radiant
aureole surrounding it. These are representative of the sacrifice
of His crucifixion along with the presence of the purifying, warming,
and illuminating fire of the Holy Spirit. Mary's Immaculate Heart
is different in that it is encircled by flowers instead of thorns.
Often, Mary herself has flowers in her hand or on her person, representing
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