Catholic Symbols: A Guide to their Meanings

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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 of death.

 

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.

 

Dove, Wind, 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 fish is 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."
 


Water
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.

 
Lamb, Sheep, 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 her virginity.






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