Christian Symbols

Anchor: found in the first century cemetery of St. Domitilla, the second and third century epitaphs of the catacombs, and especially in the oldest parts of the cemeteries of Sts. Priscilla, Domitilla, Calixtus, and the Coemetarium majus. See Hebrews 6:19.

Fish: the fish, or Ichthys, was one of the most important symbols of Christ to the early Christians. In Greek, the phrase, "Jesus Christ, Son of God Savior," is "Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter." The first letters of each of these Greek words, when put together, spell "ichthys," the Greek word for "fish." This symbol can be seen in the Sacraments Chapel of the Catacombs of St. Callistus. Because of the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the fish symbolized, too, the Eucharist. The earliest literary reference to the fish as Christian symbol was made by Clement of Alexandria, who advised Christians to use a dove or fish as their seal. Tertullian wrote of "we, little fishes, after the image of our Ichthys, Jesus Christ, are born in the water". Also used as a Christian symbol was the dolphin, most often as a symbol of the Christian himself rather than Christ, though the dolphin was also used as a representation of Christ -- most often in combination with the anchor symbol ("Christ on the Cross").

Lamb: symbol of Christ as the Paschal Lamb and also a symbol for Christians (as Christ is our Shepherd and Peter was told to feed His sheep). The lamb is also a symbol for St. Agnes (Feast Day 21 January), virgin martyr of the early Church.

Dove: symbol of the Holy Spirit and used especially in representations of our Lord's Baptism and the Pentecost. It also symbolizes the release of the soul in death, and is used to recall Noah's dove, a harbinger of hope.
Peacock: As a symbol of immortality (even St. Augustine believed the peacock's flesh to have "antiseptic qualities" and that it didn't corrupt), the peacock became a symbol of Christ and the Resurrection. Its image embellished everything from the Catacombs to everyday objects, like lamps, especially in early Romanesque and Byzantine churches. (The peacock, for obvious reasons, was also used as a symbol for pride, too)
Pelican: The Pelican is a symbol of the atonement and the Redeemer and is often found in Christian murals, frescos, paintings and stained glass. The pelican was believed to wound itself in order to feed its young with its own blood. In the hymn "Adoro Te," St. Thomas Aquinas addresses the Savior with, "Pelican of Mercy, cleanse me in Thy Precious Blood."
Phoenix: The Phoenix is a mythical creature said to build a nest when old, and set it on fire. It would then rise from the ashes in victory. Because of these myths (believed by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Orientals), the bird came to symbolize Christ.
Ship: As those outside of Noah's Ark were destroyed, the ship became a perfect early symbol of the Church with its associations with "the barque of Peter, the Fisherman." In the same vein, the main part of a church's interior, the place where the people worship, is called a "nave," from the Latin "navis" -- ship.

The Good Shepherd: Some of the earliest depictions of Christ show Him as the Good Shepherd. This type of representation is found in the Catacombs.

Palm: victory. Palms are especially made use of on Palm Sunday. The ashes of palms used on Palm Sunday are later burned and used on the next year's Ash Wednesday to symbolize mortality and penance.
Scallop shell: the sea shell, especially the scallop shell, is the symbol of Baptism, and is found frequently on Baptismal fonts. The dish used by priests to pour water over the heads of catechumens in Baptism is often scallop-shaped. The scallop, too, is a symbol for the Apostle James the Greater.
Butterfly: The beautiful butterfly, with the power of flight, emerging from the apparently lifeless cocoon: what could be a more perfect symbol of the Resurrection?
Unicorn: the unicorn (mentioned in the Bible, by the way -- see Psalm 21:22, 28:6, 92:11; and Isaias 34:7) is a symbol of chastity and of Christ Himself. Medieval legend had it that the unicorn, a feisty and fierce animal, could not be easily hunted, but if a virgin were to sit in the forest, the unicorn would find her and lay its head upon her lap. The hunter could then come by and take its horn, which was seen as having profound medical qualities (for ex., it was said to eliminate the harmful effects of a poisoned liquid). The picturing of a virgin and unicorn together, then, was common during the Age of Faith -- the former representing Our Lady, and the latter representing Christ, Who brought forth the "horn of salvation."


Trefoil: a stylized shamrock, such as St. Patrick used in evangelizing Ireland, the trefoil is a symbol of the Most Holy Trinity.


Quatrefoil: ubiquitous in Gothic architecture, the quatrefoil symbolizes the four evangelists, as do the Winged Man (Matthew), Lion (Mark), Ox (Luke), and Eagle (John) -- the four beasts of Ezeckiel and the Apocalypse.


3 Nails: 3 nails symbolize the Crucifixion. They are three in number because two nails were used to secure Christ's Hands, and a third was used to secure His Feet. The 3 nails are often combined with other symbols, such as they are in the Jesuit seal -- the letters IHS with the three nails underneath, all surmounted by a Cross.
Keys: The Keys are the symbol of the authority of the papacy and the Church's power to "bind and loose" (Matthew 16:19 and Isaiah 22).

"Chi-Rho" or "sigla": the letters "X" and "P," representing the first letters of the title "Christos," were eventually put together to form this symbol for Christ ("Chi" is pronounced "Kie"). It is this form of the Cross that Constantine saw in his vision along with the Greek words, TOUTO NIKA, which are rendered in Latin as "In hoc signo vinces" and which mean "in this sign thou shalt conquer.
Alpha-Omega: Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, became a symbol for Christ due to His being called "the First and the Last." The roots of symbolizing these attributes of God go back further, all the way to the Old Testament where, in Exodus 34:6, God is said to be "full of Goodness and Truth." The Hebrew spelling of the word "Truth" consists of the 3 letters "Aleph," "Mem," and "Thaw" -- and because "Aleph" and "Thaw" are the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the ancients saw mystical relevance in God's being referred to as "Truth." At any rate, the Greek Alpha and Omega as a symbol for Christ has been found in the Catacombs, Christian signet rings, post-Constantine coins, and the frescoes and mosaics of ancient churches.

IHS: dating from the 8th c., this is an abbreviation for "IHESUS," the way Christ's Name was spelled in the Middle Ages (despite popular belief, the monogram stands neither for "Iesus Hominum Salvator" --"Jesus Saviour of Men" -- nor for "In His Service.") Popularized by St. Bernardine of Siena, the monogram was later used by St. Ignatius of Loyola as a symbol for the Jesuit Order.

"Crux commissa" or "thau" or "tau": the T-shaped cross is mentioned in the Old Testament and is seen as a foreshadowing of the Cross of Christ. Ezechiel 9:4:

And the Lord said to him: Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem: and mark Thau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof.

The Thau of Ezechiel was itself presaged by the image of Moses's brazen serpent that he held up on a pole in Numbers 21:

And the Lord said to him: Make brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whosoever being struck [by the "fiery serpents"] shall look on it, shall live. Moses therefore made a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: which when they that were bitten looked upon, they were healed.

Because of these verses, at least one of the ancients believed the Thau to be the form of the Cross of Jesus. Tertullian wrote, "The Greek letter and our Latin letter T are the true form of the cross, which, according to the Prophet, will be imprinted on our foreheads in the true Jerusalem." (Contra Marc., III, xxii)

In any case, the Thau depicts the Cross of Christ symbolically, and St. Francis of Assisi took the Thau as the symbol of his Franciscan Order.

"Crux immissa" or "Latin Cross": the most common form of the Cross and believed to be of the style on which Jesus died.

Byzantine Cross: used mostly by the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The second cross-bar at top is for the INRI inscription; the bottom cross-bar is His footrest.

Slavonic Cross: used most often by Eastern Catholics and Russian Orthodox, this Cross is the Byzantine Cross with the footrest at a diagonal. This slant is said to represent one of a few things: the footrest wrenched loose from the Christ's writhing in intense physical suffering; lower side representing "down," the fate of sinners, while the elevated side represents Heaven; the lower side represents the bad thief while the elevated side represents the thief who would be with Him in Paradise.

Greek Cross: a very common artistic representation of the Cross. Crosses such as this one and the Tau were also popular because they were easily disguised, an important feature for persecuted Christians.

Jerusalem Cross: also called the "Crusaders' Cross," it is made up of 5 Greek Crosses which symbolize the 5 Wounds of Christ. This Cross was a common symbol used during the wars against Islamic aggression.

Maltese Cross: associated with the Knights of St. John (also known as the "Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem" or simply "Knights of Malta"), this Cross's 8 points are said to symbolize the 8 Beatitudes and the Beatitudes' associated obligations. The Order of St. John ran hostels and hospitals for Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, but eventually had to fight during the wars of Islamic aggression.

Baptismal Cross: consisting of the Greek Cross with the Greek letter "X", the first initial of the title "Christ," this Cross is a symbol of regeneration, hence, its association with Baptism


Graded Cross: this Cross, also known as the "Calvary Cross," has 3 steps which represent  the three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity.


Evangelist's Cross: the 4 steps at the bottom of the Cross stand for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

"Crux decussata" ("decussated cross") or "St. Andrew's Cross": called "decussated" because it looks like the Roman Numeral "10" (decussis), it is also called St. Andrew's Cross because St. Andrew was supposed to have been crucified on a cross of this shape.


Celtic Cross: stone crosses in this form dot the landscapes of Ireland and Scotland and are associated with the evangelization of these lands.
St. Brigid's Cross: St. Brigid fashioned a Cross out of rushes as she sat near a dying chieftan's bed. He asked her about what she was doing and in explaining, she recounted the story of Christ, whereupon the chieftan converted. Catholics -- especially Irish Catholics -- fashion Crosses like these on the Feast of St. Brigid (1 February).

Peter's Cross: because when Peter was to be martyred he chose to be crucified upside-down out of respect for Christ, the upside-down Latin Cross has become his symbol. Sadly, this cross has been co-opted by Satanists whose purpose of "inverting" Christianity (e.g. as in their Black 'Masses') is expressed by taking the Latin Cross of Christ and inverting it.

Papal Cross: the three cross-bars represent the Latin Pope's triple role as Bishop of Rome, Patriarch of West, and successor of Peter, Chief of the Apostles

Lorraine Cross: used by archbishops and patriarchs. Also known as a "Caravaca Cross" because of a miracle, involving a Patriarch's Cross, that took place in Caravaca, Spain.

Torch of Truth: Symbol of the Dominican Order, often shown being carried in the mouth of a little black and white dog. Originates in a dream St. Dominic's mother had when she was pregnant with the Saint: she dreamed of her child as a little black and white dog illuminating the world by carrying a torch in his mouth. The Dominican Order St. Dominic founded is known as the "Order of Preachers," the colors of its habit are white and black.


Graphics and Text courtesy of APOLOGIA