Symbols of the Catholic Church
from various sources
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.
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:
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
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".
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.
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
Three Circles, connected by bands forming an Equilateral Triangle,
symbolize the Three (3)
Persons of the Ever Blessed Trinity.
The Colored Hangings
Altar mark the Church's Seasons:
White or Gold signifying Joy;
Purple, Penitence; Green,
Black, Death. Red is also
used for the Holy Ghost and Blue for the
Blessed Virgin Mary.
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.
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.
The Fair Linen represents the Linen wound about
Our LORD'S Body on the Day of the Passion . . .
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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".
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.
The Lamb typifies Our
Lord as the Lamb
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.
The Nimbus is the Halo of Light placed about the
heads of Saints and Angels,
symbolizing the Beauty of Holiness.
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
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
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.
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
Of Trees, the Cedar
symbolizes Consecration, the Cypress
Mourning, the Laurel
Victory, the Mustard Growth,
the Oak Strength, the