Symbols of the Catholic Church

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Fishermen at Sea - by Joseph Mallord William (JMW) Turner - from Tate Gallery, London


Symbols of the Catholic Church

from various sources

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Turner's work depicts a group of fishermen on a wave tossed Sea. It looks like a Storm has just past with the clouds breaking up. The waves still give evidence of the Storm. It is at Night with only Moon Light to see by, and a Lamp in the Boat. There must be fish, however, because the gulls are fishing too. Perhaps the Storm has tossed food up to the surface. The fishermen continue to work stubbornly.

This work speaks strongly of the Church when you use Religious Symbolism to interpret it.

The Sea has always been a sign of Chaos. It should be no surprise that the Jewish People would view the Sea as Chaos, as opposed to God or outside God. Most lived far from a great Body of Water. They were Desert Dwellers. After they left Egypt, they roamed for many Years in the Great Desert until reaching the Promised Land. Many looking at the land today, might think it Arid, but it was a land like a Garden to them. For much of their history, they would not have had easy contact with the Mediterranean Coast because it was controlled by their Enemies. That is why when Jonah fights God, and runs from Him, he gets on a Boat to cross the Sea. He is leaving God's Kingdom for Chaos, but God is the God of even the Sea. He makes sure that Jonah can't succeed, and delivers him back to the Shore.

This is a Boat of Fishermen. Some of the Apostles were Fishermen too. Jesus uses this to make a Pun and a Prophecy. Matthew 4:17-20. "From that time Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.' As He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea - for they were fishermen. And He said to them, 'Follow Me, and I will make you fish for people.' Immediately they left their nets and followed Him." The reference to the Kingdom fits too, because Jesus compares the Kingdom to a Net:

Matthew 13:47-50. "Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a Net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the Furnace of Fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth".

The Boat itself is a symbol for the Church, the Bark of Peter. The Boat holds the Apostles, and symbolically all of Christ's Disciples. The World is a Sea in which the Church, like a Ship, is Beaten by the Waves, but not submerged, a simile of St Hippolytus, [which] may have inspired this image [of the Church as a Boat]. The image lingers in calling the Central Portion of the Church the 'Nave'. . . It also appears in the Catacombs, as a symbol for the Church, which could survive any Disaster. We are doing God's Work, fishing for People, in Peter's Boat, the Church. However, we are Strangers in a Foreign Land, i.e. the Boat is on the Sea, on the Chaos that is not God. It is a Dangerous and Storm Swept place, where even seasoned fishermen can Fear. Yet the place that is not of God contains the People who need God, the People who need Salvation.

Matthew 8:23-26. "Then He got into the Boat and His Disciples followed Him. Without warning, a furious storm came up on the Lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke Him, saying, 'Lord, save us! We're going to drown!' He replied, 'You of little faith, why are you so afraid?' Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm".

Even during the Struggle with the Chaos represented by the Wind and Waves, and even with the Fear inspired by the surrounding Darkness, we can see the Goal. We have Hope. Whenever we see an Interplay with Light and Darkness, we see God in the Light. 1John 1:5 "This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to you, that God is Light and in Him there is no darkness at all". The Light is God; it is Him penetrating the Darkness to Help; it is His Promise of a Kingdom of Light that is our Goal. We Work to Save People by bringing them to Faith. We do this even though we ride a Sea of Chaos and are surrounded by the Darkness of Wrong. We do it because it is our call and because we can see the glimmer of our Goal.

Even Turner's Boat is touched by the Light. That Boat is not immersed in the Gloom and neither are we. We have the Grace, the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide, and assist us as we work.


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More Catholic Symbolism

Catholic Symbolism is the use of signs and emblems to Teach and Present Religious Truths. Words often Fail where Symbolism Succeeds, while taken together they frequently make Spiritual Things more fully grasped. This is as True today as it was in those Times Past, when Education was not as general and Printing was unknown. Like Musical-Notation, Catholic Symbolism illustrates that for which it stands. And it adds a certain Beauty and Mysticism to Religion, speaking as it does of an Unseen World and a Supernatural Faith. A Few of the most frequently occurring Representations are explained below:


alfa1.jpg (3922 bytes) Alpha and Omega, the First and Last letters of the Greek Alphabet, signify the Eternity of God, Who, without Beginning or End, cannot be conceived-of except under Human Limitations.


The Altar symbolizes Mount Calvary, where Our LORD was offered for the Sins of the World. It is generally of Marble or Stone to typify Place-of-Sacrifice. In modern Catholic practice, the Altar is often Wood, although Stone can also be used. The Altar is to be a Table to carry forward the Meal, symbolism of the Eucharist. The Last Supper, the First Eucharist, was a Meal.


Ashes signify Penitence and Death. Ash Wednesday takes its name from the Ancient Custom of signing the Cross with Ashes on the forehead, this the First Day of Lent.


guadalupe.gif (36136 bytes) The Aureole is the Luminous Cloud or Circle of Light used in Religious Pictures to surround the Whole Figure. It symbolizes the Glory of God and properly used for Divine Persons or the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of Our Lord.


Bells signify the call to Devotion and Attention . . .


Banners symbolize the Church moving in Army to Victory as the Psalmist says, "Thou given a Banner to them that fear thee".


candle7.jpg (13884 bytes) Candles symbolize that Our Lord was the Light of the World. The Six (6) "Standard Lights" have this meaning. Where Two (2) larger ones or "Eucharistic Lights" are used, they represent Christ's Divine and Human Natures. The Seven (7) Branch or Vesper Lights tell of the Seven (7) Gifts of the Holy Ghost or the Seven (7) Sacraments. There has always been large deviation as to the Number of Lights used at Services. A beautiful meaning attached to Candles in general when used in Worship is that Wax symbolizes Our Lord's Body born of the Virgin Mary, the 'Wick' His Soul, the 'Flame' His Divinity, thus setting forth the Mystery of the Incarnation. mong03.jpg (5583 bytes)


Chirho - The early monogram of Christ, sometimes spoken of as the chirho, as it is a combination of these Two Letters X P.


The Church Building symbolizes the Ark or Ship of the Lord. The Nave, Chancel and Sanctuary (which correspond to the Court, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple) respectively represent the Church Militant, the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant on Earth, Purgatory and Heaven.


trinity_ani.gif (6574 bytes) Three Circles, connected by bands forming an Equilateral Triangle, symbolize the Three (3) Persons of the Ever Blessed Trinity.


The Colored Hangings whivest.gif (1034 bytes) grevest.gif (1034 bytes) viovest.gif (1034 bytes) redvest.gif (1034 bytes) on the Altar mark the Church's Seasons: White or Gold signifying Joy; Red, Martyrdom; Purple, Penitence; Green, Hope; Black, Death. Red is also used for the Holy Ghost and Blue for the Blessed Virgin Mary.


3barcross.gif (11730 bytes) The Cross represents the Mode of Our Lord's Death. Though long antedating Christianity it was early adopted as its greatest Sacred Symbol. Of the many forms of the Cross, the Latin, the Celtic, the Greek and the Maltese are those most generally seen. The shape of the "True Cross" was probably the Latin (or perhaps the "T") Cross, having the lower arm longer than the others.


The Crucifix is the Cross with the Carved Figure of Christ added to it. Its use is very ancient and very helpful. espth.jpg (3124 bytes)


The Dove represents the Holy Ghost, under which figure the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ at His Baptism.


The Eye symbolizes God the Father, telling that He sees and knows all that we do.


shroud.jpg (20409 bytes) The Fair Linen represents the Linen wound about Our LORD'S Body on the Day of the Passion . . .


The pez01.jpg (3721 bytes) Fish represents Our Lord and also the Eucharist. The Greek Word "Ixthus" which means "Fish," is spelled from the First Letters of Greek Words meaning, "Jesus Christ, Son of God Savior". This sign was used as a Secret Symbol by the early Christians in the Days of Persecution.


The Flames of Fire signify the Holy Ghost, as He descended upon the Apostles on Pentecost. One example is a Candle Flame; thus the Mass Candles indicate the Presence of God.


The Flowers are used in Honor of Our Lord and symbolically show that He is "The Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley". They are sometimes scattered before Processions.


Of Flowers, the Lily signifies Purity, the Rose, Love.


shepherd.jpg (7387 bytes) The Good Shepherd represents Our Lord. This is probably the earliest of all Christian Symbols. CHRIST is sometimes shown with the Sheep in His Arms. evangelists.gif (100183 bytes)


The Gospels are symbolized by the Figures of a Man, a Lion, an Ox, and an Eagle referring to Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke and Saint John, who respectively represented Our Lord as Man, King, Priest and Victim and GOD.


Holy Water is Blessed Water, to be used with the Sign of the Cross, to symbolize a Person's Baptism, and the need of Purity.


jesuit.gif (1954 bytes) I.H.S. are initials of the Holy Name. They are generally taken to stand for "Jesus Hominum Salvator", ( Jesus the Savior of Men), but more likely they are an Abbreviated Form of the First Letters of the words Jesus Christ, with a Cross between them, as written in Greek. thurible.jpg (4167 bytes)


Incense typifies the Merits of Christ and the Prayers of the Saints. It is of Divine Authority and has always been associated with the Worship of both the Jewish Temple and Christian Church. The Bible says, "In every place Incense shall be offered , unto My Name and a pure offering".


eucharist5.jpg (44177 bytes) The Holy Communion is represented by a Chalice with the Host above it; by the Wheat and Grapes and also by some of the Symbols of Our Lord. lamb of god.jpg (38521 bytes)


The Lamb typifies Our Lord as the Lamb of God that taketh away the Sins of the World. It is usually seen holding a Banner and Cross.


A Light symbolizes the Presence of God, as the Burning Bush to Moses, or the Pillar of Flame to the Israelites. Thus the Red Lamp or Candle before the Altar notes the Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.


HALO.gif (3520 bytes) The Nimbus is the Halo of Light placed about the heads of Saints and Angels, symbolizing the Beauty of Holiness.


orb.jpg (30571 bytes) Oil symbolizes Grace and Blessing. Its use was large in ancient times. Now it is often confined to the Unction of the Sick. In the Catholic Church it is also used at Baptism, Confirmation, and the Ordination of a Priest.


The Orb surmounted with a Cross means that the Christian Religion is for all. It often has under it written in Latin, "The Cross stands while the world revolves".


Palms signify Praise, Triumph and Thanksgiving. God Himself ordered them to be carried. They were borne in Honor of Our Lord and their Homage accepted by Him on the First Palm Sunday.


crznth.gif (10820 bytes) The Passion of Our Lord is typified by the Crown of Thorns, the Spear and the Nails, the Five Sacred Wounds, the Precious Blood and the Sheet. Sometimes there are added the Reed, the Scourge, the Seamless Robe, the Pillar, the Cock and also the Passion Flower.


The Pelican, a Bird which nourishes its young with its own blood, symbolizes Our Lord feeding the Faithful with the Blessed Sacrament.


A Procession signifies the Journey of the Soul to GOD for "they will go from strength to strength and unto the God of gods appeareth every one of them in Sion". It is preceded by the Cross, as the symbol of the Triumph of the Church and because we follow Jesus, Who "went forth bearing His Cross". Lights are borne, for those who go with Christ "shall not walk in darkness". Banners are carried because God said, "Lift ye up a Banner". Incense is used to symbolize the Merits of Christ and Flowers are sometimes strewn [or flowers are present] to signify the Beauty of Holiness and the Fragrance of Devotion.


The Rock represents: sometimes Christ, sometimes the Church. A very ancient way was to have flowing from it Four (4) Streams of Water symbolizing the Four Gospels. Rock also represents St Peter, and his Successors.


star4.gif (851 bytes) The Star is the Emblem of Christ, "the bright and morning Star". This is particularly used to illustrate Christmas and Epiphany.


The Trefoil, copied after the Clover or Shamrock, represents the Trinity. Saint Patrick is said to have taught this Doctrine from a Shamrock. It is similar to the French Emblem, the "Fieur-de-lys". Jesus wears a Trefoil clasp on His robe in the above depiction.


Of Trees, the Cedar symbolizes Consecration, the Cypress Mourning, the Laurel Victory, the Mustard Growth, the Oak Strength, the Olive Peace.


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