Catholic Church Symbolism: What Does It All Mean?
The Catholic church is steeped in mystic iconography, solemn rituals, and imagery that can be pretty confounding for those who aren't practitioners of the faith - and often, even for those who are. From stylized bleeding hearts to crosses to an entire menagerie of religiously significant animals to the clever use of Greek letters to symbolize faith itself, the Catholic church is overflowing with unique images that each have their own rich history, tradition, and meaning. Often, the layered symbolism of the images stems from the persecution of Christians who had to hide their faith to avoid punishment. Here's a breakdown of the hidden meanings behind some of the most enduring and unusual icons, emblems, and symbols of the Catholic church.
The Alpha And The Omega Represent The Presence Of God In All ThingsPhoto: Karlunun / Wikimedia Commons / CC By 4.0
Often used as a term to describe God or Jesus, as in, "He is the alpha and the omega," the phrase refers to the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet. It is used to imply that God comprises all things. Essentially, God is in everything in the universe, from A to Z.
It is also used to imply the presence of God and Jesus at the beginning of creation through the end of creation. Its use in the New Testament is believed to have been inspired by the Old Testament; in Isaiah 44:6, God says, "I am the first, and I am the last."
The Jesus Fish Is A Secret Symbol That Stands For Jesus’s NamePhoto: Andreas F. Borchert / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Famed for adorning the bumpers of minivans the world over, the Jesus Fish, also known as the Ichthys, was a secret symbol long used by persecuted Christians. In Propaganda & Persuasion, Garth Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell explain:
Initially used as a secret sign during the time when Christians were persecuted by the Roman authorities... it was found scrawled on walls, trees, in the dust, and any place where Christians wished to leave their mark to communicate their increasing strength to others.
The fish was chosen because the Greek word for "fish" served as an acronym for Jesus.
The Fleur-De-Lis Represents The Holy TrinityPhoto: Jebulon / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The image of the three-petal flower is famous both for its appearance in medieval heraldry and as the logo of the New Orleans Saints. However, the history of the fleur-de-lis is steeped in religious symbolism and significance.
The fleur-de-lis is a stylized lily, a flower that has historically symbolized peace and purity. The three petals are believed to represent the Holy Trinity, and the symbol is strongly associated with the Virgin Mary, as there can be no Holy Trinity or divinity without her.
The Crossed Keys of St. Peter Are The Keys To The Kingdom Of Heaven ItselfPhoto: Judgefloro / Wikimedia Commons / CC By-Sa 4.0
The image of two ornate keys crossing one another has long been a familiar symbol, and is often found in paintings of St. Peter and even in the flag of Vatican City. They represent the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus promised to St. Peter in Matthew 16:19: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven."
According to the Catholic church, the keys also represent the divine authority of the church itself. St. Peter's keys are so ingrained in his story and the history of Catholicism that the floor plan of St. Peter's Basilica resembles a key.
IHS and XP Are Abbreviations For Jesus’s NamePhoto: Collegium Societatis Jesu / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The letters IHS frequently appear on liturgical vestments and documents, and many people incorrectly believe they stand for "I have suffered," in reference to Jesus's sacrifice. In reality, they are a Christogram, meaning they are a collection of letters that represent Jesus's name. I (iota), H (eta) and S (sigma) are all letters that appear in the Greek spelling of Jesus.
XP (or Chi-Rho) is another example of a Christogram, serving as an abbreviation for the Greek word for Christ. These symbols were often used as a secret code by Christians looking to avoid persecution while identifying themselves to other Christians. For example, they would be marked on a tomb to indicate that its inhabitant was of the faith.
The Dove Is The Vessel For The Holy Spirit
As one of the most common images associated with the Catholic church, the dove isn't just a symbol of peace or purity; it represents the Holy Spirit itself. It is considered to be the vessel for the Holy Spirit's works on Earth, and pops up frequently in ecclesiastical art.
As a vessel for the Holy Spirit, the dove appears frequently during baptisms, and it represents the Holy Spirit coming to cleanse the soul of the person being baptized. Additionally, in paintings that show doves sitting on people's shoulders, the feathered friend often symbolizes divine, guiding wisdom.