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The Anchor (as Symbol)

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The anchor, because of the great importance in navigation, was regarded in ancient times as a symbol of safety. The Christians, therefore, in adopting the anchor as a symbol of hope in future existence, merely gave a new and higher signification to a familiar emblem. In the teachings of Christianity the virtue of hope occupies a place of great importance; Christ is the unfailing hope of all who believe in Him. St. Peter, St. Paul, and several of the early Fathers speak in this sense, but the Epistle to the Hebrews for the first time connects the idea of hope with the symbol of the anchor. The writers says that we have "Hope" set before us "as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm" (Hebrews 6:19-20). The hope here spoken of is obviously not concerned with earthly, but with heavenly things, and the anchor as a Christian symbol, consequently, relates only to the hope of salvation. It ranks among the most ancient of Christian symbols. The well-known fragment of the inscription discovered in the cemetery of St. Domitilla — which De Rossi reads (sepulc)rum (Flavi)orum — contains the anchor, and dates from the end of the first century. During the second and third centuries the anchor occurs frequently in the epitaphs of the catacombs, and particularly in the most ancient parts of the cemeteries of Sts. Priscilla, Domitilla, Calixtus, and the Coemetarium majus. About seventy examples of it have been found in the cemetery of Priscilla alone, prior to the fourth century. In the oldest of these (second century) the anchor is found associated with such expressions as pax tecum, pax tibi, in pace, thus expressing the firm hope of the authors of these inscriptions that their friends have been admitted to Heaven. The anchor is also found in association with proper names formed from the Latin or the Greek term for hope — spes, elpis. St. Ambrose evidently had this symbol in mind when he wrote (In. Ep. ad Hebrews 6): "As the anchor thrown from a ship prevents this from being borne about, but holds it securely, so faith, strengthened by hope," etc.

Various forms of the anchor

Different forms of the anchor appear in the epitaphs of the catacombs, the most common being that in which one extremity terminates in a ring adjoining the cross-bar while the other ends in two curved branches or an arrowhead. There are, however, many deviations from this form. IN a number of monuments of Sts. Calixtus and Priscilla the cross-bar is wanting, and in others the curved branches are replaced by a straight transversal. These departures from regularity do not appear to have any especial significance, but the cruciform anchor marks an interesting symbolic development. The rare appearance of a cross in the Christian monuments of the first four centuries is a well-known peculiarity; not more than a score of examples belong to this period. Yet, though the cross is of infrequent occurrence in its familiar form, certain monuments appear to represent it in a manner intelligible to a Christian but not to an outsider. The anchor was the symbol best adapted for this purpose, and the one most frequently employed. One of the most remarkable of these disguised crosses, from the cemetery of St. Domitilla, consists of an anchor placed upright, the transverse bar appearing just beneath the ring. To complete the symbol, two fishes are represented with the points of the curved branches in their mouths. A real cross, standing on a sort of pedestal to the right of this, is sufficient indication that the author of the figures intended a symbolic cross in this instance. Of even greater interest in this connection is the representation of a cross-anchor with two fishes suspended from the cross-beam, also found in the cemetery of St. Priscilla. There can scarcely be any doubt that the author of this and similar representations intended to produce a symbolic picture of the crucifixion: the mystic Fish (Christ) on the suggested cross (the anchor). To the same category of symbols, probably, belongs the group of representations of the dolphin and trident. The anchor as a symbol is found only rarely in monuments from the middle of the third century, and early in the fourth century it had disappeared.

About this page

APA citation. Hassett, M. (1907). The Anchor (as Symbol). In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Hassett, Maurice. "The Anchor (as Symbol)." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael C. Tinkler.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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