Enjoy the site? Click here to buy it in book form for only $14.99!
© 2001-2020 by Doug Gray. All Rights Reserved.
The God of Christianity is one God yet three beings. The three beings are God the Father, the Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. These three are one. They work in unison, one never contradicting the other. I have split up this chapter into three sections, dedicating a section to each distinct being of God.
I. GOD THE FATHER
God the Father is one part of the Trinity. It was God the Father who created the world, who sent His Son to die for us, who raised His Son from the dead and who knows when He will bring this world to an end.
Making an image of God the Father has always been a point of controversy. During the early years, Christians greatly feared God. The thought of limiting Him to a poorly rendered human portrait would have been appalling. This is further enforced when we remember that Christianity had its roots in Judaism where a simple thing like speaking God’s name was strictly forbidden. For the first eight centuries, the primary symbol for God the Father was limited to only a hand.
After the eighth century, artists began to portray God in full form. In these renderings, He is depicted as being old and wise with a highly esteemed continence. He is usually given a long beard and always has a halo around His head. He can be portrayed as a king, complete with a crown, or as a pope.
Today, opinions vary. Some churches do not allow any image of God the Father at all. They only use God’s name to represent Him. Some churches allow certain parts of the body, such as a hand or a face, to symbolize Him. Still other churches allow a full human body to portray Him. Readers should check with their pastors or governing bodies before using any image in this section to symbolize God the Father in their churches.
THE FACE OF GOD – At first, the early church limited its portrayals of God the Father to a human face floating in clouds of glory. As time progressed, the face became a bust, then a half-length figure and finally an entire human figure was used.
THE FATHER’S NAME – When wrestling with how to portray God the Father in art, one of the names of God, Jehovah, was often used. It is usually surrounded by an equilateral triangle (symbolizing the Trinity) with rays of glory surrounding it.
HAND OF GOD – For the first eight centuries, God the Father was symbolized by a hand. This is based on Exodus 15:6 and Psalm 48:10. 1. The Roman Catholic (Latin) form of the hand will have two fingers extended, which symbolize the twofold (human and divine) nature of his Son, Jesus. The three bent figures symbolize the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). The hand of God should always be portrayed with a three-rayed halo surrounding it, showing that the hand belongs to God the Father. 2. The Eastern Orthodox (Greek) form of the hand will have the first finger fully extended, the second finger curved inward, the third finger and thumb are turned inward to cross over each other and the fourth finger is also curved. The fingers form the Greek letters “IC XC” which is the monogram for “Jesus Christ”. This hand also symbolizes benediction and blessing. 3. God the Father is sometimes symbolized by an arm or hand reaching down through the clouds from Heaven. The hand is sometimes closed or may be grasping an object. At times, two fingers are extended while three fingers are bent. When portrayed, the hand should be surrounded by a halo showing that the hand belongs to God. 4. If the hand is cupped, holding tiny people in its grasp, it symbolizes God holding the righteous in the palm of His hand. This image is based on Psalm 139:10. 5. A hand with two fingers extended and three fingers bent is a sign of benediction or blessing through Jesus Christ.
ALL SEEING EYE – 1. The all seeing eye is the eye of God the Father. This is based on the passage in Psalm 33:18. The eye is often stern or angry. In these cases, the eye should be displayed within an equilateral triangle, showing it is the eye of God the Father. Rays of light are usually shown radiating from it, signifying the holiness of God. This symbol is most appropriate when it is displayed in a window above the altar. This symbol has fallen into disuse as churches have moved away from the idea of a stern, angry God. 2. The all seeing eye today is often connected with the Masons, a secret society. The Masonic eye is not set within an equilateral triangle.
STAR OF DAVID (Creation Star) – 1. Two equilateral triangles are used to form this star. The name of God is found within it. The Hebrew name for God, YHWH, is sacred to the Jews and should never be spoken. Whenever a Jewish rabbi would come to the word “Yahweh” while reading Scripture, he would always say “Adonai” instead. Another substitute for the sacred name of God is to write two Hebrew letters called “yods”. 2. The star is called the creation star because it took six days for God to create the world.
TRIANGLE WITH YOD – The yod symbolizes the sacred name of God (YHWH). The triangle symbolizes the Trinity.
THE WORD ADONAI – Adonai or Adhonai is Hebrew for “Lord”. It is often found written within a circle of glory. The word Adonai is used as a substitute for the sacred name of God (YHWH) and for the word “Jehovah”.
THE WORD EL SHADDAI – Jews consider the name of God (YHWH) too sacred to speak. When they come to it while reading out loud, either the word “Adonai”, meaning “Lord”, or El Shaddai, usually translated “the Almighty,” is used as a substitute.
II. GOD THE SON
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the second part of the Trinity. Jesus came to earth where He lived a perfect life, never once breaking one of His Father’s laws. His perfection meant He was not condemned to death. Even so, He chose to go through a sacrificial death, taking all of our sins upon Himself and dying in our place. It was on the cross were God poured out all of His anger and wrath meant for us. After three days, God raised His Son from the dead. Any person who places their faith in Jesus will be set free from the condemnation of sin and raised from the dead to inherit eternal life. Jesus will one day come back to earth in victory. At that time, all humanity will stand before Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead. Because Jesus became a physical man, many churches allow for the depiction of Jesus as a male human. One should check with his or her pastor or governing body before using any image in this section to symbolize Jesus in a church.
ANCHOR – The anchor is a symbol that dates back to the first century and has frequently been found in the catacombs. 1. The anchor makes a natural cross and was used as a cryptic way of displaying a cross without getting in trouble with the authorities. 2. Based on Hebrews 6:19, the anchor symbolizes the stability we have in Jesus. 3. The symbols of an anchor (doubling as a cross) and a heart symbolize faith, hope, and love.
BRANCH – In the Old Testament the prophets spoke of a righteous branch coming from the house of David (Zechariah 3:8, Jeremiah 23:5). The branch was a messianic reference to Jesus.
A CHILD – A young male child, holding a scroll in one hand, symbolizes Jesus when He was debating with the Jewish leaders in the temple (Luke 2:41-52).
THE CROSS AND ORB – 1. A cross sitting atop a ball, globe or orb symbolizes Jesus conquering all the sin in the world. It is often seen held in the hand of Jesus, either as a child sitting in the lap of Mary or as an adult seated on a throne. 2. The cross and orb symbolize the work of missions taking the Gospel message around the world.
THE CROWN – 1. Jesus fulfilled three offices on earth: the offices of prophet, priest and king. The crown symbolizes Jesus holding the office of king. 2. The crown symbolizes eternal life (James 1:12).
THE CRUCIFIX – A cross with Jesus on it. It is a symbol of the Passion of our Lord. Opinions vary as to how realistic our Lord should appear on the cross. Artists should pay special attention to the sensitivities of the audience who will see the crucifix.
THE DOOR – 1. According to John 10:9, Jesus is the door by which we must enter to have eternal life. 2. A symbol of the door to our hearts based on Revelation 3:20. Jesus stands at the door and knocks; all those who let Him in will receive eternal life.
FISH (Ichthus) – A very popular symbol of Jesus. Each letter in the Greek word for fish (Ichthus) represents a word. “I” = Jesus, “ch” = Christ, “th” = God, “u” = Son, “s” = Savior. SEE ALSO: Animals: Fish.
FIVE CROSSES – The five crosses represent the five wounds Jesus received on the cross. This arrangement is most appropriate when carved into the altar. One cross is carved on each corner, with a larger cross in the middle.
THE FOUNTAIN – A prophecy was made by Zechariah in Zechariah 13:1 that spoke of a fountain springing from the house of David that would bring cleansing for sin. The fountain is a messianic reference to the coming of Jesus.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD – A very ancient symbol, Jesus as the good shepherd is based on John 10:11. When portrayed, Jesus is to be shown as a beardless youth, wearing a tunic and carrying a lamb over His shoulder or in His arms. A halo may or may not be portrayed. At times, He carries a shepherd’s flute in His right hand and His left hand is placed over His heart. Some images show Jesus as a shepherd standing in the midst of twelve sheep which represent His apostles. This symbol was popular in the Roman catacombs, being found on both the walls and the sarcophagi (burial boxes). The symbol was popular early, but died out by the eighth century.
THE GREAT JUDGE – In Mediaeval times, it was popular to carve Jesus, the Great Judge, over the doorways of churches. On one side, saints of all walks of life (kings, bishops, merchants, peasants, etc.) were wonderfully clothed and being ushered into the Kingdom of Heaven with the help of angels. On the other side of the doorway, a similar group of people were being led naked into the mouth of Hell. F. R. Webber noted that “the Mediaeval artist seems to have believed that God was no respecter of persons, for noted examples exist showing kings with their crowns, bishops with their mitres and rich men with their bags of money, numbered among those who are departing into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”1 Today images of Jesus as a judge rarely appear as the church has shifted to emphasizing the merciful attributes of Jesus.
HAND WITH WOUND – 1. This is a symbol of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. The circle represents the wounds Jesus received from the nails being driven into His hands as He was nailed to the cross. 2. The broader meaning is agape (unconditional love). This symbol is sometimes displayed with the word “love” beneath it referring to the love Jesus showed by dying for sinners.
LAMB (Agnus Dei, Paschal Lamb) – A very ancient symbol of Jesus. Jesus being the Lamb of God is based on several Bible passages: Isaiah 53:7, John 1:29, and Revelation 5:12. Another name for the Lamb of God is the Latin form, Agnus Dei. The lamb is portrayed in a variety of ways. The lamb is shown lying on a book with seven seals. The lamb often carries the banner of victory. It must have a three-rayed halo around its head, showing it is a part of the Trinity. At times, the Chi Rho is shown above its head. The lamb is sometimes shown standing on a hill from which the four rivers of Paradise flow forth. The hill symbolizes the church, the mountain God’s house, and the four rivers either the four Gospels or the four rivers of Paradise flowing forth to rejuvenate the pastures of the church. Jesus as the Lamb of God is sometimes called the Paschal lamb. The Paschal lamb is the lamb the Jews sacrifice to start the Jewish celebration of Passover. Jesus fulfilled this roll, being the perfect sacrifice for our sins. SEE ALSO: Animals: Lamb.
LION – A symbol of Jesus being the “lion of Judah” is based on Revelation 5:5. In this instance, the lion must have a halo. SEE ALSO: Animals: Lion.
THE NATIVITY (Manger, Crèche) – The word “nativity” comes from the Latin word “nativus” meaning “birth”. Nativity scenes have become a popular decoration during the holiday of Christmas which celebrates Jesus’ birth.
Simple nativity scenes consist of Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus who is usually lying in a manger (crèche). More complex nativity scenes can include a donkey, an ox, a camel, sheep, shepherds, three wise men and a star.
The manger is sometimes shown by itself either empty or with Jesus lying in it. If Jesus is present in the manger, the child must have a halo surrounding His head to symbolize His divinity.
SEE ALSO: Holidays: Nativity Scene.
ORPHEUS – This symbol represents Jesus. It was taken from pagan sources. The story goes that Orpheus would play such beautiful, melodic music that it would tame even the wildest of beasts. This is similar to the beautiful message Jesus preached that can tame even the most terrible sins in a person’s life. In the symbol, Jesus is shown with a musical instrument in His hand, and many allegorical animals surround Him. The animals represent sinful man, tamed by His music.
OX – The ox symbolizes Jesus because both the ox and Jesus were sacrifices for sins. SEE ALSO: Animals: Ox.
PELICAN – Legend tells us that the pelican would tear open its breast and use its own blood to feed its young. The young would live, but the adult would die. This sacrifice represents Jesus, who died so that we may live. SEE ALSO: Animals: Pelican.
ROCK – 1. Jesus Christ is referred to as a rock in I Corinthians 10:4. Paul was alluding to the rock that brought forth water for the Israelites as they wandered through the desert (Exodus 17:6). In this case, the rock symbolizes Jesus as our provider, taking care of our needs. 2. Jesus as our rock and solid foundation is based on Psalm 18:2 which compares our Lord to a rock and fortress. Matthew 7:24 also describes the rock as being the foundation of a sturdy house. 3. If the rock is shown with four rivers of water flowing from it, the rock symbol is referring to the four rivers found in Paradise (Genesis 2:10) 4. In Matthew 16:18, Peter told Jesus that He was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus told Peter that his comment was revealed to him from Heaven; and, upon the statement made by Peter He would build His church. This is symbolized by a church built upon a rock.
THE SACRIFICE OF ISAAC – Isaac is represented as a boy carrying a bundle of wood for his own sacrifice (based on the story in Genesis 22). The wood is often held in the form of a cross as Isaac’s sacrifice was a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus who was also obedient to the point of death.
SNAKE OF BRONZE – 1. While wandering in the desert the Israelite people rebelled by complaining to God about His provisions for them (Numbers 21:4-9). So God sent poisonous snakes which bit them, killing many. Quickly the people repented and cried out to Moses to pray to God to take the snakes away. God forgave the people and instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Every person who saw it was healed. 2. The bronze snake is an allegory of Jesus being put on a cross. All who look upon His sacrificial death and believe will be healed from their sins. The two events were often portrayed together.
STAR – The five-pointed star symbolizes our Lord Jesus Christ. It is based on Numbers 24:17 which states that a star shall come from the lineage of Jacob. Jesus even called Himself the bright and morning star in Revelation 22:16. SEE ALSO: Stars.
THE SUN – Jesus is referred to as the “Sun of Righteousness” in Malachi 4:2.
THREE CASKETS/BOXES – The three caskets brought by the wise men were gold, frankincense and myrrh. Each gift represents one office Jesus held. The gold was for the office of king, frankincense for the office of priest and myrrh for the office of prophet.
THE UNICORN – To capture a unicorn a young virgin was placed in the forest. The unicorn would come to her and lay its head in the maiden’s lap. Then it could be captured. This symbolizes Jesus who humbled Himself and was born of a virgin. SEE ALSO: Animals: Unicorn.
THE VINE – Jesus Himself said in John 15:5 that He is the vine and we are the branches. SEE ALSO: Plants: Vine.
III. GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT
The Holy Spirit is the third part of the Trinity. It was the Holy Spirit who came upon Mary and placed Jesus within her. When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and settled upon Him. After Jesus’ death and before He ascended to Heaven, He promised the disciples He would send them a helper, the Holy Spirit, to guide and teach them. He kept His promise by sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Today, when a person accepts Jesus as their Savior, that same Holy Spirit comes and resides within the person, to guide and instruct him or her.
THE DESCENDING DOVE – This is one of the most popular representations of the Holy Spirit. Matthew 3:16 describes the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and resting upon Jesus at His baptism. This symbol was used almost exclusively for the Holy Spirit during the first eleven centuries. The dove should always be white in color and should always have a three-rayed halo to show it is representing a part of the Trinity.
THE FLAME OF FIRE – The flame is a very popular symbol of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:3 gives testimony that the Spirit of God appeared as flames of fire resting upon each believer. This day would become known by the Old Testament festival day it fell on, Pentecost. When portrayed in art, the flame may be either a single flame or multiple flames.
THE SEVEN GIFTS (FRUITS) OF THE HOLY SPIRIT – 1. According to Isaiah 11, there are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The gifts are (with Latin in parentheses): 1. Wisdom (sapientia); 2. Understanding (intellectus); 3. Council (concilium); 4. Fortitude (fortitudo); 5. Knowledge (scientia); 6. Reverence (fear) of the Lord (fimor); 7. Piety (pietas). The list in Revelation 5:12 is slightly different: 1. Power (divinitas); 2. Thanksgiving (virtus); 3. Wisdom (sapientia); 4. Fortitude (fortitudo); 5. Honor (honor); 6. Glory (gloria); 7. Blessing (benedicio). When the gifts are listed, the Revelation gifts are typically used. When portrayed, the gifts are written on scrolls. 2. A seven-pointed star represents the seven gifts. Each of the star’s seven points contains a letter. Each letter represents one of the seven spiritual gifts. 3. Seven doves represent the seven gifts. Sometimes these doves carry scrolls in their beaks, with one gift written on each scroll. At times the doves are portrayed as surrounding Jesus.
THE NINE GIFTS (FRUITS) OF THE HOLY SPIRIT – Each of the star’s nine points contains a letter. Each letter represents one of each of the nine spiritual gifts found in Galatians 5. Each of these nine gifts are given to believers through the Holy Spirit. The gifts are (with Latin in parentheses): 1. Love (charitas); 2. Joy (gaudium); 3. Peace (pax); 4. Patience (longanimitas); 5. Kindness (benignitas); 6. Goodness (bonitus); 7. Faithfulness (fides); 8. Gentleness (mansuetudo); 9. Self-control (continentia).
A SEVEN-BRANCHED CANDLESTICK – A symbol sometimes used to represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
THE SEVEN BURNING LAMPS – The seven burning lamps (Revelation 1:12) represent the Holy Spirit.
IV. THE TRINITY
Christians believe in one God. We also believe that this one God has three distinct persons. Those personas are God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. While they have three personalities, they are one unified God.
Symbols depicting the Trinity did not come into prominent use until the ninth century. Artists have chosen two ways to depict the Trinity, either as three persons or as abstract symbols.
As three persons, the illustrations vary. Sometimes the artist would portray all three in human form. At other times God the Father and the Son are depicted, with the Holy Spirit hovering above them. Finally, only God the Father might be shown in human form, with the symbols for the Son (usually a lamb) and the Holy Spirit (usually a dove) beside Him.
CIRCLE – The circle represents eternity. The circle is frequently seen with a Trinitarian symbol, representing the eternal qualities of each part of the Godhead.
THE FLEUR-DE-LYS – Often used to represent Mary, this symbol has also been used to represent the Trinity because of its three parts making up one shape. SEE ALSO: Plants: Fleur-de-lys.
SHAMROCK (Clover) – The familiar legend of St. Patrick has made the shamrock a popular symbol of the Trinity. It was said that while St. Patrick was witnessing to the non-believers in Ireland, they grew angry with him and demanded that he prove that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit were truly just one God. St. Patrick picked a shamrock and asked them whether he held up one leaf or three leaves. If three leaves then why one stem? If one stem then why three leaves? His accusers were silent because they could not answer him. He went on to challenge them that if they could not understand something as simple as a shamrock, then how could they understand the Trinity?
SHIELD OF THE TRINITY – This design was created to explain the Trinity. In each circle are three Latin words; “Pater” (Father), “Filius” (Son) and “Spus Scus” (Holy Spirit). In the middle is the word “Deus” (God). The connecting lines inward read “Est” (is). The outer lines read “Non Est” (is not). Thus the symbol reads: The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit. The Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. The Shield of the Trinity is often seen in stained glass windows.
THE STAR OF CREATION (Star of David) – The six-pointed star is several symbols in one. The star is made up of two triangles, each representing the Trinity. The six-sided star they form is a symbol of creation. Thus the symbol means that the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were all a part of the creation of the world. SEE ALSO: Stars.
TREFOIL – This combination of three circles is a wonderfully popular symbol of the Trinity. It originated sometime in the tenth century. It reached its height of popularity in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was used a great deal in architecture and stained glass. It’s geometric beauty gives it great versatility leading to numerous variations and combinations with other symbols.
TRIANGLE – The triangle is a perfect symbol for the Trinity. It has three equilateral (equal) sides and three equilateral angles. Each side is distinct but equal to the others. Three parts, yet one shape. The triangle is always shown pointing up. The triangle was the only Trinitarian symbol used by the early church. It was used in the catacombs on grave markers.
The triangle can contain words such as the Latin word “Sanctus” meaning “Holy”. In the sixteenth century the Hebrew word God’s sacred name (YHWH) was added to the triangle to replace images of the Trinity.
The triangle is frequently added to other symbols. 1. Triangle with Circle. The circle symbolizes the eternalness of the Trinity. There are many variations of this combination. 2. Triangle with cross. We often attribute the work of Salvation to Jesus and His death on the cross. However, the Trinity was and is fully involved with our salvation. Jesus died for our sins. God the Father raised Jesus from the dead giving us hope of the resurrection. The Holy Spirit convicts us and brings us to the point of repentance. Salvation is of the Triune God. This symbol does a wonderful job representing this. 3. Triangle of fish. The fish stands for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”. In this case three fish form a triangle, representing the Trinity. SEE ALSO: Animals: Fish. 4. Triangle with Omicron, Omega, Nu. This triangle contains the Greek letters “Omicron”, “Omega”, and “Nu”. These letters represent the phrase spoken by God to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3:14 , εγω ειµι ο ων, meaning, "I am that I am". Keep in mind that this phrase was taken from the Septuagint, the Greek form of the Old Testament. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. 5. Triangle of rabbits. This is a symbol of the Triune God. The rabbits are of equal dimensions and form a triangle. SEE ALSO: Animals: Rabbit.
TRIQUETRA – This design has three equal arcs. It is a beautiful and balanced design found often in architecture and stained glass.
1. Webber, F. R., “Church Symbolism” (Cleveland: J. H. Jansen, 1934), p. 87.