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Symbolism may for our present purpose be defined to be the investing of outward things or actions with an inner meaning, more especially for the expression of religious ideas. In a greater or less degree symbolism is essential, to every kind of external worship and we need not shrink from the conclusion that in the matter of baptisms and washings, of genuflexions and other acts of reverence, of lights and sweet smelling incense, of flowers and white vestures, of unctions and the imposing of hands, of sacrifice and the rite of the communion banquet, the Church has borrowed, without hesitation, from the common stock of significant actions known to all periods and to all nations. In such matters as these Christianity claims no monopoly. Religious symbolism is effective precisely in the measure in which it is sufficiently natural and simple to appeal to the intelligence of the people. Hence the choice of suitable acts and objects for this symbolism is not so wide that it would be easy to avoid the appearance of an imitation of paganism even if one deliberately set to work to invent an entirely new ritual.

In any case the Old Testament, and more particularly the religious worship of the Old Testament, is full of symbolism. However literal may be our interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, we cannot fail to recognize the symbolic element which pervades them. When we read for example how "God created man to his own image", or how He "formed man of the slime of the earth and breathed into his face the breath of life", we can hardly doubt that it was upon the underlying moral lesson rather than upon the material fact suggested by the words that the attention of the writer was concentrated. Still more clearly the words "sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty", by which the Creed recalls the language of Psalm 109:1,, or the whole purport of such a writing as the Canticle of Canticles, compels a symbolical interpretation. But it is in the details of worship that the tendency is most apparent. In prayer we constantly find the spreading out of the palms of the hands (see Exodus 9:29, 33; 1 Kings 8:22, 38, 54; Job 11:13; etc.), clearly emphasizing the idea that the worshipper comes forward as a suppliant expectant of good gifts. In the act of blessing the hand is laid upon the head of the recipient or at least is stretched towards him (Genesis 48:14; Leviticus 9:22; 2 Kings 13:16; etc.) with the suggestion that virtue passes out to the person so blessed. The rite of circumcision is to be performed in memory of the covenant between God and Abraham (Genesis 17:11), and all the Jewish festivals beginning with the Pasch are similarly commemorative of God's mercies to His people. So again of the loaves of proposition (Leviticus 24:5 sq.) we are told, "Thou shalt put upon them the clearest frankincense, that the bread may be for a memorial of the oblation of the Lord". Although nothing more is said as to the precise significance of this offering which was to remain from Sabbath day to sabbath day in the Holy of Holies, it is clear that it could have served no utilitarian purpose and that its object was purely symbolical. Again the same may be said of the whole sacrificial ritual of the Old Testament, and in the case of the incense the words of Psalm 140:2, "let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight; the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice" (cf. Revelation 5:8; 8:3) seem sufficiently to declare what was the spiritual meaning underlying the outward sign. In any case the atmosphere of mystery which surrounded the ark of the covenant and later on the Temple and all the adjuncts of its imposing worship must have been a fertile soil for the growth of a teaching rich in symbolic interpretations. These things clearly suggested inquiry into their hidden significance and if the meaning were not in itself obvious, we may be assured from the genius of the people as manifested in the later Talmud that an explanation would readily be evolved to meet the case.

Coming now to Christian times the conditions of self-effacement and frequently recurring persecution under which the faithful lived in the first ages of the Church must have helped much to develop any tendencies towards a symbolistic treatment of religious truths which they had derived from Judaism. In point of fact the life of the Catacombs and the Discipline of the Secret, which partly grew out of it, necessitated a veiling of Christian beliefs under types and figures. Moreover, so far as regards any graphic presentment of these mysteries in sculpture and painting, it seems intrinsically probable that the faithful deliberately availed themselves of such symbols as would not attract too much attention, and that consequently they gave the preference to representations which had some pagan analogue. In the earlier period no representations of the Crucifixion are found, and hardly any of the cross, at least in a large and conspicuous form; neither are the episodes of Christ's life commonly depicted realistically and historically, but only conventionally. But the type of the Good Shepherd carrying the sheep on his shoulders occurs frequently, and this preference may well be due to its resemblance to the pagan figures of Hermes Kriophorus or Aristæus, which at this period were much in vogue. The Christian understood clearly the reference to the loving self-sacrifice of Our Saviour, but pagan curiosity was not aroused by anything startling and unwonted. Again the banquet scenes with fish and bread (see EARLY SYMBOLS OF EUCHARIST), which spoke so eloquently to the faithful of Holy Communion and the marriage supper of the blessed in heaven, seemed to the Roman of the second and third century, who paid homage to the dead with banquets as well as sacrifices, a perfectly natural decoration for a funeral chamber. Even the fable of Orpheus was borrowed pictorially and referred to Christ. Similarly the story of Eros and Psyche was revived and Christianized, serving to remind the believer of the resurrection of the body and the eternal beatitude of heaven. The group of the Twelve Apostles probably attracted the less attention because the twelve Dii Majores were often also grouped together. Again the figure of the Orans, the woman with arms uplifted in prayer, was quite familiar to classical antiquity. Though the precise significance attached to it as it is found in the catacombs is in dispute, it was clearly designed to awaken some spiritual idea in the minds of the initiated. Similarly the fish symbol (see SYMBOLISM OF THE FISH) representing Christ, the anchor of hope, the palm of victory, were all sufficiently familiar as emblems among pagans to excite no particular attention. Hence even in the case of an inscription which breathes so unmistakably the atmosphere of early Christian symbolism as the epitaph of Abercius with its allusions to the Fish (Christ) in the Eucharist, the shining seal (baptism), the chaste shepherd (Christ), etc., it has been possible for writers like Ficker to deny its Christian significance though in defiance of all probability as Zahn, Duchesne, and many other writers have shown. From whatever cause it arose the strong symbolistic colouring of religious practice during the first ages of Christianity is disputed by hardly anyone, and it was manifestly in harmony with the allegorical tone of the Apocalypse, of the Pastor of Hermas, and of other early apocryphal writings. Further it is certain that the tradition thus created only deepened and spread throughout both the early and the later Middle Ages. The tendency seems to have been particularly fostered by the allegorical exegesis of the theologians of Alexandria which the writings of St. Jerome and St. Gregory the Great helped to make familiar to western Europe. The works of Isidore of Seville and of St. Bede helped in the same direction. Neither must the so-called "Clavis" attributed to St. Melito of Sardis be left out of account. There is certainly no sufficient reason to identify it with the genuine work of St. Melito which bore a corresponding name, but the Clavis gathered up a variety of symbolical interpretations current in Augustine and the Fathers, and it seems to be of fairly early date (cf., however, Rotmanner in "Theol. Quartalschrift", 1896, lxxviii, 614-29).

With regard to the early ritual of the Church, the part that symbolism plays in all connected with the sacraments need not be insisted on. The outward sign of the sacrament was itself symbolical. But there was much more than this. In the case of baptism, for instance, nearly all the ceremonial is of very early date. The exorcism of Satan by blowing or breathing, the giving of salt (sal sapientiœ), the rite of the Ephpheta, and the use of spittle, imitating the action of Our Lord in some of His miracles, the ancient practice of turning to the West when renouncing Satan but of facing eastwards in making the profession of faith, the white robe or chrysom bestowed as an emblem of innocence, the lighted candle typical of the illumination of faith (hence the baptized were early called photistheutes, i.e. the illuminated), and finally the curious custom of giving milk and honey to the newly-baptized infant are all in the highest degree symbolical. In confirmation we have the marking of the Sign of the Cross upon the brow and the use of oil representing the fatness and abundance of grace. The blow upon the cheek, significant of the warfare in which the resolute Christian is engaged, is of much later date and probably imitated from the sword blow by which the young Teutonic warrior was dubbed a knight. The laying of the hand upon the penitent's head, which was practised almost everywhere during the Middle Ages when absolution was given, no doubt symbolized the imparting of grace, as the imposition of hands undoubtedly does in the Sacrament of Orders, Even in the ritual of matrimony such a pagan practice as the giving of the espousal ring, which was probably in the beginning part of the arrhœ, was invested at a later period with the mystic meanings of perpetuity and fidelity.

That much of the symbolism which is found in the medieval liturgists was invented ex post facto cannot be doubted. We may readily allow that the greater part of the ceremonial practices now adopted by the Church were utilitarian in their origin. For example, the priest washed his hands before the Preface because he had been using the thurible or at least taking up the offerings of the faithful; it was not until later that this act was connected by the liturgist with spiritual purification or even with the hand-washing of Pilate. At the same time it is possible to exaggerate the utilitarian explanation, and the liturgist Claude de Vert, who laid so much stress upon this aspect of the matter, in some instances went too far. For example, de Vert held that the candle given to the newly-baptized was only meant to help them to find their way back from the baptistery to the sanctuary in the darkness of the Easter vigil. But the very early use of the above-mentioned term photistheis (illuminated) for a baptized person shows the extravagance of this explanation and, as Le Brun sagely pointed out, the catechumens would have needed candles as much to find their way to the baptistery as to return from it. Whether de Vert was wrong in maintaining that the extinction of the Tenebræ candles one by one had originally no symbolical reference to the abandonment of Christ by His disciples but was simply due to the fact that fewer candles were needed as dawn approached and the office drew to an end, or again in his contention that the noise made at the end of Tenebræ had no reference to the earthquake on Calvary but was simply the signal for departure given by the celebrant after an interval of silent prayer, may like many other familiar problems be left an open question.

It is perhaps most of all in the matter of liturgical vestments that the tendency to attach symbolical meanings to usages originally adopted for some simple and practical purpose shows itself most conspicuously. The prayers recited by the celebrant in assuming these attributes a mystical significance to each, thus the chasuble which covers all denotes charity, and the girdle self-restraint and continence, while medieval liturgists have devised many more; but modern authorities are agreed that in hardly any case has a vestment been adopted in the Church for mystical reasons. The amice, for example, was simply a cloth used like a modern collar to protect the rich chasuble or tunic from contact with the skin. It was only afterwards that the priest was bidden to regard it as a "helmet of salvation to overthrow the assaults of the evil one". And the same holds true of all the rest. Of the pallium, a white woollen band encircling the neck and hanging before and behind, it can at least be said that from the time of St. Gregory the Great it has been sent by the pope to archbishops with the distinctly expressed purpose of symbolizing the archiepiscopal jurisdiction conferred upon them, a purpose for which it is expressly blessed and laid "upon the body of Blessed Peter" in the "confession" of the great Roman basilica" (see TENEBRAE).

In any account of Christian symbolism an important place must always be given to the Church, and that whether the institution or the material building is regarded. It is considered by some that the veiled Orans, already spoken of, which appears so frequently in the catacombs represents the Church (see the Pastor of Hermas, iii, 3, 10, and compare the term Virgin Mother parthenos meter used of the Church in the second century; Eusebius, Church History V.1.43). This is not certain, but the Church in early mosaics is undoubtedly often personified, as indeed we should expect from the early and widely-read visions contained in the Pastor of Hermas (see HERMAS), and sometimes we find not one, but two, contrasted figures representing respectively the Church of the Gentiles and the Church of the Circumcision. The contrast is also presented to us in the form of two towns set over against each other and duly labelled Bethlehem and Jerusalem, or even more frequently in the confronting portraits of St. Paul and St. Peter. At a later date also, beginning early in the Middle Ages, we repeatedly find two contrasted types, but here representing the Church and the Synagogue. The Church is a crowned and often sceptred figure with a chalice emblematic of her sacramental system. The Synagogue, on the other hand, has lost her crown, her staff is broken, and her attitude betokens defeat. These figures are constantly to be found on either side of early medieval representations of the Crucifixion. Here there is plain opposition between the two types (see Sauer, "Symbolik", p. 247), whereas in early Christian imagery the Church of the Circumcision and the Church of the Gentiles are depicted as constitutive parts of the one Kingdom of God upon earth. This example shows that continuity between primitive and medieval symbolism must not always be assumed, though in many cases we can securely trace back a type to its origins in the earliest ages.

Another early and accepted emblem of the Church was the ship. In the Apostolic Constitutions (II, xlvii) the bishop surrounded by the assembly of the faithful is compared to the helmsman of a ship; but the idea is as old as Tertullian (De bap., xii; P.L., l, 1214) and it was varied sometimes by comparing the Church to the Ark of Noah. In any case the ship was a recognized Christian symbol and Clement of Alexandria approved it for a signet ring. "Let the dove or the fish", he says, "the vessel flying before the wind, — or the marine anchor be our signets" (The Pedagogue III.2), and numerous representations of ships, sometimes serving as the design for a lamp, with the figure of Christ or St. Peter as helmsman are preserved to us. The name which we still retain for the "nave" (French, nef) of a church bears testimony to the persistence of the same idea. Moreover, from the spiritual Church, idealized as the heavenly Jerusalem, to the material edifice the transition was very easy. As early as the Pastor of Hermas the individual members of the Church were looked upon as the stones of which the spiritual building was fashioned, the thought being perpetuated to all time in the magnificent hymn "Cœlestis urbs Jerusalem". No wonder that the liturgists of the Middle Ages found no more fruitful theme than the interpretation of every detail in the fabric and ornamentation of their great cathedrals. Moreover, in this case undoubtedly there was action and reaction. Not only did the teachers set themselves to give mystical explanations of what already existed, but their spiritual conceptions influenced the generations that came after, and architects designed and built with the conscious purpose of rendering in stone the beautiful thoughts which had become to them as a new language. To begin with the church was "oriented", i.e. its chancel (apart from the Roman basilicas where the celebrant offered Mass facing the people) pointed to the East. Whether one is to recognize here the Christianization of a form of sun-worship, which some have traced to the influence of the emperor Constantine, or whether the faithful looked eastward to greet the coming of the "Sun of Justice", the "Orient from on high", certain it is that already in the Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century (II, xlvii) the church was built to face the East. The practice lasted on throughout the Middle Ages. From this indication of the points of the compass it followed that the deacon in reading the Gospel turned himself sideways so as to proclaim the glad tidings to the barbarous races of the north. The great porch at the western end, on the other hand, faced the setting sun and led men's thoughts to the close of life. Hence it is that this became the conventional position for those magnificent sculptures or paintings of the last judgment found in many of our old cathedrals. With regard to the door itself there is frequently some significant scheme of decoration which emphasizes the idea that the door is Christ (Ego sum ostium, John 10:7) and this is alone sufficient justification for the glorification of these portals, one, two, or three in number, often encased in great arches and crowded with stone carvings of angels and saints.

In such liturgical treatises as the "Rationale" of Durandus every detail in the construction of the church has a special significance assigned to it. The roof represents charity which covers a multitude of sins; the beams which tie the building together betoken the champions of ecclesiastical right who defend it with the sword; the vaulting signifies the preachers who bear up the dead weight of man's infirmity heavenwards; the columns and piers stand for the Apostles, bishops, and doctors; the pavement symbolizes the foundation of faith or the humility of the poor; and so on. In all this the mystical interpretation of numbers holds a great place. There are twelve consecration crosses, and this, besides a reference to the Twelve Apostles (in not a few instances each consecration cross is marked upon a shield borne by one of the Apostles), symbolizes the spiritualizing human nature and of the world by faith, or, as others put it, it betokens the universal Church. The reason is that three, the number of the Blessed Trinity, figures the Divine nature, and four, the number of the elements, typifies the number of the material world. Twelve is the product of three and four, and it consequently betokens the penetration of matter with spirit. So again eight denotes perfection and completion, for the visible world was made in seven days and the invisible kingdom of grace follows upon that. In this way the octagonal shape was judged specially appropriate for the baptistery or for the font, on the ground that this initiation into the supernatural order of grace completed the work of creation. Naturally five recalls the wounds of Christ, and five grains of incense are inserted cross-wise in the Paschal Candle, while ten, the number of the Commandments, is typical of the Old Law. Seven again has its own very special attraction as the number of the sacraments, of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, of the virtues and vices, and many other things. There can be little doubt that much of this symbolism of numbers is to be traced back to Egypt and Assyria, where the movements of the seven planets, as men then counted them, were continuously studied and where the elements of three and four into which seven was divided lent themselves to other combinations also regarded as peculiarly sacred, for example the number sixty, the product of three, four, and five.

Of isolated pieces of symbolism of various kinds medieval art and literature are full. The early monogram of Christ, sometimes spoken of as the chirho, as it is a combination of these two letters X P, thus (See Symbol a or Symbol c), sometimes again as the labarum and in French as the chrisme, has been discussed under CROSS (IV, 522). Another Christ emblem (besides FISH, treated in a separate article) was the lamb, often associated with a flag. This actually took the place of the figure of Our Saviour, and it was represented in combination with the cross instead of the human form, being sometimes even surrounded by a cruciform nimbus. As there seemed a danger of the Sacred Humanity being lost in allegory, the Council, "In Trullo", at Constantinople (691) decreed that the lamb in future should not be used in this way, but that the figure of Christ should be substituted. As for the first Person of the Blessed Trinity the earliest symbolical representation seems to be found in the Divine hand which is often seen extended from the clouds in early representations of the baptism of Our Saviour and of other operations of grace.

It is hardly needful to add that a vast chapter in the history of symbolism is supplied by the saints and their emblems. Almost everyone of the more familiar saints has some emblem, often more than one, by the presence of which his identity is made known. The gridiron of St. Lawrence, the scallop shell of St. James, the special cross of St. Andrew, the lion of St. Jerome etc. might be quoted in illustration, but often also there are emblems common to a whole group of saints, the palm branch, for example being in general indicative of a martyr, and the deacons being nearly always represented in their dalmatics. For the Evangelists there have been used from very early times certain conventional emblems — a winged man or an angel for St. Matthew, a winged lion for St. Mark, a winged calf for St. Luke, and an eagle for St. John. All these are taken from the description of the heavenly liturgy in Apocalypse 4 and 5 must have been suggested by the vision of Ezechiel (Ezekiel 1:10). In the art of the early Middle Ages these emblems play a very prominent part. Other forms of symbolism are of much later development, for example the type which as been called "the Eucharistic Ecce Homo" representing Our Saviour with the sacred wounds, divested of his garments and standing in the tomb, not dead but living. In the paintings, etc., known as the Mass of St. Gregory which were popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Our Lord is generally depicted in this way. Again Our Lady of the Seven Dolours, with the seven swords piercing her heart, is a type of comparatively late occurrence, and this of course is still more true of the pictures connected with the Sacred Heart. The monogram, I.H.S. surrounded by rays, which, from the fact that it was much used by the early Jesuits, has sometimes been supposed to be the peculiar device of the Society of Jesus, really owes its popularity to the preaching of St. Bernardine of Siena at the beginning of the fifteenth century. It represents the Holy Name written in a Greek abbreviated form and had originally nothing to do with Iesus Hominum, Salvator.

For another section of symbolism which is concerned with the mystical significance attached to the representations of animals, the reader is referred to the article BESTIARIES.


An excellent compendium of the whole subject is that of JENNER, Christian Symbolism (London, 1910); a fuller treatise is Supplied by SAUER, Symbolik des Kirchengebaudes (Freiburg, 1902), Which concerns itself chiefly with architecture. The same is true of KREUSER, Christliche Kirchenbau (Brixen, 1868-9). AUBER, Hist. et théorie du symbolisme réligieux (4 vols., Paris, 1874), is very diffuse. NIEUWBARN, Het roomsche Kergebouw (tr. Nymwegen, 1908), is too slight and sketchy. For the later Middle Ages and for France in particular there are the two admirable books of MALE, L'art rélig. de la fin du moyen-âge (Paris, 1908), and L'art religieux du XIIIe siécle en France (3rd ed., Paris, 1910). See also ALLEN, Early Christian Symbolism in Great Britain and Ireland (London, 1887); HUYSMANS, La Cathédrale (Paris, 1898). Regarding the liturgy see: THALHOFER, Liturgik (Freiburg, 1883); FRERE, Principles of Religious Ceremonial (London, 1906); HULME, Symbolism in Christian Art (London, 1899). On the emblems of the saints see: CAHIER, Caractéristiques des saints (Paris, 1887); DETZEL, Christliche Ikonographie (Freiburg, 1894); PFLEIDERER, Die Attributen der Heiligen (Ulm, 1898); RADOWITZ, The Saints in Art (Rome, 1898); JAMESON, Sacred and Legendary Art (London, 1848), and other works; GREENE, Saints and Their Symbols (London, 1904). The great storehouse of medieval symbolism is the Rationale divinorum officiorum of DURANDUS (modern ed., Naples, 1859), parts of which have been translated (Leeds, 1843, and London, 1899).

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1912). Symbolism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Symbolism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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