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ALMS BOX – It is a symbol of charity.
ANCHOR – 1. A ship’s anchor gives it stability in the midst of a storm. In the same way, the anchor symbolizes the church, which stands steadfast in the storm, giving hope to those who rest in it (Hebrews 6:19). The anchor is a very old symbol, being used by the church as early as the 2nd century A.D. 2. The construction of the anchor allows it to double as a cross, thanks to the crossbar at its top. The cross anchor symbolizes our stability found in Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection.
ANVIL – An instrument by which some Christians were martyred. 1. It symbolizes martyrdom in general. 2. It symbolizes specific saints who were martyred by an anvil.
ARCH – 1. The arch can stand for triumph. 2. If it is a broken arch, it stands for an untimely death.
ARM – 1. An arm symbolizes protection, defense and strength. 2. Hairy arms symbolize Jacob’s deception of Isaac as told in Genesis 27.
ARMOR – Armor symbolizes protection against evil. A popular reference concerning armor is found in Ephesians 6:13-17. The passage speaks about putting on the whole armor of God to withstand the attacks of Satan.
ARROW – 1. Arrows can symbolize martyrdom because some Christians were killed by them. 2. Arrows refer to pestilence and attacks (fiery darts) shot at believers by the enemy.
ASHES – 1. Ashes were used when a person was mourning. The person would dress in sackcloth and place ashes on his or her head. 2. Ashes symbolize penitence.
BAG OF MONEY – It symbolizes betrayal, referring to Judas betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.
BANNER – 1. A symbol of victory. A banner is often carried by the Lamb of God. 2. A banner symbolizes the resurrection. 3. Being held in the hand of a saint it symbolizes the carrying of the Gospel to foreign lands.
BASKET – A symbol of charity.
BEADS – A symbol of prayer. SEE ALSO: Rosary.
BELLOWS – 1. A symbol of temptation. 2. If bellows are shown with a lighted candle they symbolize Satan’s attacks as he tries to extinguish (bellows) a person’s spiritual life (candle).
BOOK (Codex) – 1. A single book represents the Holy Word of God. 2. If the book is held by one of the four evangelists, it symbolizes the book(s) he wrote (i.e. A book in Matthew’s hand would symbolize the book of Matthew.) 3. If the book is in the hands of an apostle, it can represent his learning and/or being a teacher of the Christian faith. If both evangelists and apostles/disciples are shown, the evangelists will carry the books and the apostles/disciples will carry scrolls. 4. Books in the hands of saints show they where well educated in the Scriptures. If the saint is also holding a pen of ink, it means the saint was the author. In the case the name of the book(s) the saint wrote may be written on the book’s cover. 5. A book held in the hands of a monk who established a particular order/monastery may symbolize the rules of that order.
BOTTLE OF OINTMENT (Perfume, Spices) – 1. A symbol of the burial of Jesus. The event of Mary bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body is found in Mark 16:1. 2. A gift of the wisemen.
BOW – A symbol of war.
BREAD – 1. Bread is the sustenance of life. Jesus Himself said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). Therefore, bread makes an excellent symbol of life. 2. Bread was used at the Last Supper when Jesus broke the bread and said, “This is my body, broken for you ”(Luke 22:19). In this context the bread, usually shown with a chalice or bunch of grapes, represents the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist).
BRICKS – Bricks with a whip represent the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt.
BRIDLE (Bit) – A symbol of self-control; the ability to refrain from certain activities and actions.
CABLE – A heavy rope or cord. A symbol of strength.
CAGED BIRD – Images of caged birds have been found dating back to the fourth century on tombs in the catacombs in Rome. 1. Jesus, the Son of His infinite Father in Heaven, limited Himself to a human form. The caged bird therefore symbolizes this Incarnation. 2. The cage symbolizes the body and the bird symbolizes the human soul. 3. A bird being released from the cage is the soul departing the body and leaving for Heaven.
CAULDRON OF OIL – A symbol of John the Apostle. Tradition tells us John was cast into a caldron of boiling oil yet remained alive and unharmed.
CHAINS (Fetters) – 1. A symbol of the Passion of our Lord. 2. A symbol of martyrdom. 3. A symbol of the power of Satan. 4. Broken chains symbolize overcoming sin.
CITY ON A HILL – A symbol of the church, being both prominently seen in the community as well as bringing stability to it. The term is taken from Jesus’ own teaching about being a city on a hill in Matthew 5:14-16.
CLOAK – A symbol of Christian charity and righteousness.
CLUB (Bat) – 1. A symbol of the betrayal of Jesus. 2. It is a symbol of martyrdom because many Christians, including James, where beaten to death.
COFFIN – A symbol of death.
CORNERSTONE – It symbolizes Jesus being the head of the church. He is the cornerstone which guides the laying of all other stones in the construction of a building (Matthew 21:42).
CROWN - 1. A symbol of royalty. When worn by a saint it means they were royalty on earth. When the crown is near the saint, say, at their feet, it means they gave up their royalty on earth for the sake of following Jesus. 2. A crown on Mary’s head is a symbol of her being queen of Heaven.
DAGGER – A symbol of martyrdom as many Christians were stabbed to death.
DICE – A symbol of the Passion, referring specifically to the account found in John 29:23-24 where the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ coat.
EARTHEN VESSELS – The vessels symbolize humility and mortality as explained in Isaiah 64:8.
FIRE – 1. Fire symbolizes martyrdom, as some Christians were burned alive. 2. A symbol of zeal and passion. 3. Inspiration. 4. It symbolizes Hell or purgatory. Usually a person is portrayed standing in flames with great agony on his or her face. 5. It symbolizes sacrifice, such as a lamb lying in flames on an altar. 6. It symbolizes the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. In this case, the flames are depicted on people’s shoulders or floating above their heads.
FLAG (Christian) – The Christian flag was developed on September 26, 1897 by Sunday school superintendent Charles C. Overton. The flag represents the Christian faith. The cross on the flag is a widely recognized symbol of Christianity. It symbolizes the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross so that we might have our sins forgiven. The cross is red symbolizing the blood Jesus shed. The cross is on a blue field. “The blue background of the cross speaks of faithfulness and sincerity of the Savior, who was obedient unto death.”1 The white portion of the flag symbolizes purity and peace. It also symbolizes Jesus’ sinless life.
The Christian flag is usually displayed in Protestant churches in the United States, although they have been seen overseas, thanks to American missionaries. At times, a pledge is said to the flag: “I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands; one brotherhood, uniting all mankind in service and love.”2
GATE – 1. A symbol of death and departure from this life as recorded in Psalms 9:13. 2. It symbolizes the gates of Heaven or Paradise based on Psalms 24:7. The gate carries both of these meanings (1 and 2) in scenes of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. 3. A gate is the dividing barrier between the righteous and the damned in scenes of the last judgment. A gate is always a central feature in illustrations of the descent into Hell.
GLASS – A symbol of purity because glass has clear and transparent qualities.
GLOBE (Orb) – 1. A symbol of power, often the globe is held in the hand of God the Father or Jesus. In art, globes can also be found held in the hands of archangels. 2. If the globe has a cross on the top of it, it symbolizes taking the Christian message (missions) to the entire world. Such globes are often found on the top of church steeples.
GOLD – 1. A symbol of great wealth. 2. Gold symbolizes a person being royalty. 3. It symbolizes Jesus’ kingly office. 4. A gift of the wisemen.
GRIDIRON – A symbol of martyrdom.
HALBERD – A symbol of martyrdom. Tradition tells us that Jude was killed with a halberd.
HAMMER – A symbol of our Lord’s Passion because the hammer was used to nail Jesus to the cross.
HAND(S) – 1. Two hands that are joined together, with God hovering above, symbolize Christian marriage. 2. Two hands joined together on a gravestone symbolize farewell. 3. Two hands pressed reverently together symbolize worship. 4. Folded hands are a symbol of prayer. 5. A hand with a wound in it symbolizes Jesus’ Passion.
HARP – 1. A symbol of music, joy and worship in Heaven. 2. It is a symbol of David as told in I Chronicles 13:8.
HATCHET/AXE – 1. A symbol of destruction. 2. It is a symbol for John the Baptist due to a sermon he preached where all the trees not bearing fruit were cut down (Matthew 3:10). 3. It is a symbol of Joseph, referring to his trade as a carpenter. 4. Because both Matthew and Matthias suffered martyrdom by beheading, the axe is one of their symbols.
HEART – A symbol of charity. SEE ALSO: Sacred Heart, p. 262.
THE HOLY GRAIL – The Holy Grail was the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. The legend of the Holy Grail dates back to the twelfth century. The legend, once started, grew every time it was retold. It tells us the Holy Grail was greatly sought after because it had been touched by Jesus and thus held miraculous powers. Joseph of Arimathaea, who used the chalice to catch some of the blood spilled by Jesus as he buried Him in his tomb, sent the Grail to followers in Great Britain. Upon its arrival, a secret society of guardians was established to protect it. The Grail, according to the legend, remains hidden and guarded to this day.
HORN – 1. It symbolizes strength, intelligence and power. 2. Seven horns (from a Ram), they symbolize the Israelites conquering Jericho (Joshua 6:4). 3. A horn containing oil, then it symbolizes David being anointed king. 4. A horn of plenty symbolizes God’s generosity.
IDOL – It symbolizes apostasy, paganism and pagan worship.
JEWELS – Various jewels have different meanings:
Ruby = Love, passion (emotion) and the blood of martyrdom.
Sapphire = Heaven, truth and wisdom.
Emerald = Hope, life and growth.
Amethyst = Penitence.
Diamond = Joy and purity.
KEYS – 1. A pair of keys almost always symbolizes Peter, who was given the keys to the kingdom by Jesus (Matthew 16:19). 2. A symbol of excommunication (being removed from the membership of a church) and restoration.
KNIFE – 1. A symbol of martyrdom. 2. It symbolizes God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac as recorded in Genesis 22.
LADDER (Stairs) – 1. It symbolizes Jacob’s dream as found in Genesis 28:12. It is almost always portrayed as a ladder reaching up into Heaven. Sometimes angels are ascending and descending the ladder. 2. The ladder is a Passion symbol. It usually has a sheet wrapped around it and is sometimes portrayed along with a reed and sponge. A ladder was used to get Jesus’ body down from the cross after He died. 3. In John 1:51 Jesus refers Himself as a mediatory ladder connecting God and man.
LAMP – 1. A symbol of wisdom and enlightenment. 2. The lamp symbolizes the Bible, the Word of God, which is to illuminates our paths. 3. In the hands of a saint it symbolizes piety.
LANCE – 1. A symbol of Jesus’ death on the cross. When he had died, His side was pierced with a lance (John 19:34) to make sure He was dead. 2. A symbol of martyrdom because some Christians were killed with a lance.
LIGHTNING – A symbol of destruction and God’s vengeance.
MASK – A symbol of hypocrisy.
MILLSTONE – A symbol of martyrdom.
MIRROR – 1. A symbol of prophecy. 2. In Roman Catholic Churches it symbolizes the Virgin Mary, as it is said she was like a spotless mirror, a perfect reflection of her perfect son, Jesus.
MONEY – 1. A handful of money or a bag of money symbolizes betrayal. It is used as a symbol for Judas. 2. Three bags of money or a money chest symbolizes Matthew, who had been a tax collector before becoming an apostle (Matthew 9:9).
MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS – A symbol of worshipping God.
NAILS – A symbol of the death of Jesus on the cross.
OIL – 1. A symbol of calmness and peace. 2. Oil is symbolic of healing based on James 5:14. 3. Used for anointing a king.
ORANTE (Orans) - 1. Usually a female figure standing with open arms in meditation and prayer petitioning Heaven on behalf of the deceased soul. The symbol was seen frequently decorating the tombs in the Catacombs in Rome. It was popular through the 4th century A.D. Great figures of the Bible, such as Noah, Abraham, and Daniel are sometimes portrayed as Orans, asking the Lord to deliver the soul buried there. 2. The Orans by itself can symbolize the person’s soul (both male and female) being at peace in Heaven.
PEN – A symbol of divine authorship. In art, it is not uncommon to see gospel writers holding pens in their hands.
PINCERS – A symbol of martyrdom.
PLOUGH – 1. A symbol of Cain. 2. Diligence. 3. Labor.
POTTER’S WHEEL –1. A symbol of a Christian’s life being shaped by God, like a potter shaping a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel. This symbol is based on Romans 9. 2. A symbol of Jeremiah based on his prophecy at the potters house (Jeremiah 18).
PYRAMID – A symbol of Israel in slavery in Egypt.
RAIN – A symbol of God’s impartiality. Matthew 5:45 tells us that the rain falls equally on the just and the unjust.
ROBE – A seamless robe symbolizes Jesus’ death on the cross. It was at the cross that lots were cast for His seamless robe.
ROCK – A symbol of stability and firmness (Matthew 7:24-27).
ROPE – 1. A symbol of Jesus’ death because He was bound with ropes in the garden of Gethsemane. 2. A symbol of Judas who hung himself with a rope after he turned Jesus over to the authorities.
SACKCLOTH – A symbol of mourning.
SACRED HEART – A symbol of great passion and consistency. The thorns symbolize the pain of the cross. The open wound symbolizes rest and safety for the repentant sinner.
SALT – A symbol of wisdom as Christians are called to be the salt of the earth.
SAW – 1. A symbol of martyrdom because some Christians were cut in half by saws. 2. If the saw is pictured in the context of a woodworking shop, or in the hands of a man with a halo, it symbolizes Joseph.
SCALES – 1. A symbol of justice. 2. Scales with a cross symbolize Jesus’ death canceling the debt we owe God because of our sins.
SCOURGE – A symbol of Jesus’ torture before His death.
SCROLL – A scroll or manuscript in the hands of a person suggest the person was an author. Usually, scrolls are found in the hands of the Old Testament authors, while a book (codex) is placed in the hands of a New Testament author. Sometimes the name of the book or scroll is written upon it.
SCYTHE – A symbol of death. In art, it is usually held in the hand of a skeleton.
SEAL – A symbol of God’s signature. This is based on Revelation 7:2-3.
SHEAF OF WHEAT – 1. A symbol of having plenty, thanks to God’s blessing. 2. If the sheaf is with grapes, it is a symbol of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist).
SHIP – 1. A symbol of the church. The ship is a wonderful symbol in many respects. When examining a ship, we see Jesus as the captain, the pastors as officers and the crew as the laity. Ships will frequently get caught in storms. The church, in a parallel respect, gets caught in heretical storms, or storms of persecution. But just as God protected His faithful in the ark and Jesus protected his faithful in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, so too will the faithful be protected from these storms. It should also be noted that the ship’s mast forms a cross. Some ship images have the Chi Rho on the sail or as part of the mast. 2. If the ship has animals going up into it or are upon it, it symbolizes Noah’s ark.
SICKLE – 1. A symbol of death. 2. A symbol of the end of the world based on Revelation 14:19. An angel swings a great sickle, bringing in the harvest of souls from the earth.
SKELETON – A symbol of death.
SKULL – 1. The skull is a symbol of the earthly kingdom and death. 2. If the skull is at the foot of the cross, it symbolizes Jesus’ death on Golgotha hill which means “the place of the skull”. 3. A symbol of the atonement. Blood from the crucified Lord is seen dripping onto the skull at the base of the cross. This symbolizes the atoning (covering) of the first Adam’s sins by the blood of the second Adam’s (Jesus) sacrifice. 4. If the skull is pictured with a saint, it represents meditation on death. If a cross is with the skull, it symbolizes meditation on eternal life.
SNOW – A symbol of purity.
SPEAR – 1. A symbol of Jesus’ death on the cross. 2. A symbol of martyrdom as some Christians died by the spear.
SPONGE – A symbol of Jesus’ death on the cross.
STAFF – A very popular symbol of pilgrimage.
STAKE - A symbol of martyrdom. Many Christians died by being tied to a stake and having a fire lit underneath them.
STAR - Each point of the star is symbolic. Four Points: The four points of the cross.
Five Points: 1. The star that guided the wise men to baby Jesus. The star of Epiphany. The revelation of God to humankind and the taking of the good news of redemption to the Gentiles. 2. A popular symbol at Christmas time. It is often seen above nativity scenes or placed atop Christmas trees.
Six points: 1. Called creation star because it has six points, one for each of the six days in which God created all things. It can be portrayed with the sacred Hebrew name of God (YHWH). Whenever the Jewish rabbis come to the word YHWH when reading Scripture they substitute the word “Adoni” in its place. Another substitute for the sacred name of God was to write two Hebrew letters called “yods.” They were usually written between rays of light or in the creation star. 2. Today the six-pointed star is synonymous with Israel. It is called the Star of David. This star dates back to Roman times, when it was used as a simple decoration piece. The Jews liked the design and started integrating it into their synagogues. The earliest usage of the Star of David dates back to 200 A.D. to a synagogue in Capernaum. Now this star is inseparable from Israel; appearing on their national flag.
Seven points: 1. One point for each of the seven gifts of the Spirit described in Isaiah 11 and Revelation 5:12. Sometimes the seven-pointed star contains letters, with each letter representing one of the seven gifts.
Eight points: 1. A symbol of baptism and regeneration (renewal). The reason the number eight symbolizes regeneration has been lost. However, some scholars believe that it is connected to the shape of the early baptismal fonts (stands that contained water for infant baptism) which were eight sided. Others speculate that the eighth day of creation was like a new creation.
Nine points: 1. One point for each of the nine gifts of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. Sometimes the nine-pointed star contains letters with each letter representing one of the nine gifts.
Ten points: Each point represents one apostle, minus Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus and Peter who denied Him.
Twelve points: One point for each of the twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve apostles.
STIGMATA - The wounds of Jesus on the hands, feet or side of a saint. Two well known saints who claimed to experience the mysterious marks of the stigmata were St. Francis and St. Catherine.
SWORD – 1. A symbol of martyrdom because many Christians died by the sword. 2. A symbol of power and authority, such as when it is in the hands of the Archangel Michael.
TORCH – 1. The torch symbolizes Jesus being taken into custody by the temple guard in the garden of Gethsemane. 2. A symbol of personal passion for spreading the good news of the Gospel. 3. A symbol of personal enlightenment.
TOWEL – 1. A spotless towel symbolizes Mary. 2. A towel with a pitcher is a symbol of Jesus’ death on the cross. 3. A symbol of footwashing at the Last Supper (John 13:4-5).
TOWER – 1. A symbol of defense. 2. A symbol of strength through God.
TRUMPET – 1. A trumpet symbolizes judgment. In art, the trumpet of judgment is usually held in the hands of an archangel. 2. A symbol of the calling of the Holy Spirit. 3. A symbol of being called to worship. 4. A symbol of the Resurrection.
VASE – 1. A vase made of clear glass symbolizes the Virgin Mary. 2. If the vase holds a lily, it symbolizes the Annunciation. This is very popular in art.
WATER POTS – A symbol of Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine during the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12).
WELL – 1. A symbol of spiritual renewal. (John 4:10). 2. The Gospel.
WINEPRESS – A symbol of the wrath of God, based on Isaiah 63:3 where the evil are trodden in the winepress of God’s wrath.
WINGS – 1. A symbol of aspiring to reach greater heights. 2. The person portrayed is an angel.
WOOD PLANE – A symbol of Joseph, who was a carpenter.
WREATH – 1. A wreath made of ivy symbolizes hospitality. 2. A wreath made of oak leaves symbolizes strength. 3. A wreath of laurel symbolizes victory. 4. A wreath made of olive branches symbolizes peace. 5. A wreath of bay leaves symbolizes death. 6. A wreath of Cypress leaves symbolizes mourning.
1. Rest, Friedrich, “Our Christian Symbols,” (Philadelphia, Education Press, 1954), p. 49.
2. Ibid., p. 50.