Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Guest Author Mary McCall on Christian Symbolism Part II

In September of this year, Mary McCall, a regular guest author at History Undressed, offered up her article Medieval Christian Symbolism, and today I am eager to present to you, Part II of Christian Symbolism that Mary has written for us.  As I write this, Mary is herself in the heart of Rome--at the Vatican!  Eager readers, prepare to have your minds tantalized by Mary's prose...

Early Christian Symbolism: Part II

By Mary McCall

Let me begin by announcing this is a Purple Post. Amanda Kelsey did such a beautiful job with the heather-covered field on my cover that I’ve decided to declare November Purple Month. On any blog post I do this month that you respond to, leave your e-mail. I’ll be doing a drawing for a .pdf copy of Highland Treasure for each blog three days after it’s posted. In addition, I’ll save all the names and on December 3rd, I’ll do a drawing for a gift basket. I’m not very good at doing like the Romans. There’s no getting used to the time change here and my internet time is limited, but I will get back to make replies.

The Fish: One of the most common of all early Christian symbols is the fish, representing Christ - ever-watchful with unblinking eyes. 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 (in "De Baptismo") "But we, being little fishes, as Jesus Christ is our great Fish, begin our life in the water, and only while we abide in the water are we safe and sound." 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"). During the reign of Diocletian, a common form of persecution/death for martyrs was to have an anchor wrapped around their neck and then toss them in a lake. In the catacombs, the final resting places of martyrs are marked with the method of death. It is common to see anchors, flames, axes, crosses, etc. carved into the stone.
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 Ghost 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 Noe's dove, a harbinger of hope.

Peacock: As a symbol of immortality (even St. Augustine believed the peackock'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. This example is two peacocks facing on the side of an ancient tabernacle with the Chi-Rho on the lid. (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." Allusion is even made to this belief in "Hamlet" (act iv): "To his good friend thus wide I'll open my arms And, like the kind, life-rendering pelican, Repast them with my 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 Noe'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 Ark is also a symbol of the Temple through its shape and purpose, both having three levels, etc. And as a symbol of the Temple and Church, it is a symbol of Mary, sealed off with pitch and closed up by God Himself.

Rainbow: Sign of the Covenant with Noe. Its 7 colors (from the top down: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) recall the 7 Sacraments (7 is the sign of Covenant and completion). In St. John's vision of Heaven, a rainbow makes an appearance -- over the head of the angel who gives John a book to eat (ch. 10), and surrounding the throne of God:

Apocalypse 4:2-3:

And immediately I was in the spirit: and behold there was a throne set in heaven, and upon the throne one sitting. And he that sat, was to the sight like the jasper and the sardine stone; and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

We’ll look at more next time and eventually get into how some of these symbols led to development of heraldry. Until next time, happy reading and writing!



Can the Highlands survive a gifted soul with a tendency toward mischief?

Leonce MacPherson became chieftain after an unknown Norman slaughtered his father and clansmen. For two years he’s raided Northumbria seeking vengeance while a dream woman promises the return of his great sword, stolen in the massacre.

After escaping an abusive father, Lady Hope Nevilles, unknowingly the Gifted MacKay of her generation, has lived with animals for friends in wild Northumbria. She longs to flee to her mother’s native Highlands and find a place away from capture and torture.

When her father steals Leonce’s son, Hope takes that as a sign to journey to the Highlands. She returns the boy and the great sword to Leonce, who recognizes her as his dream siren. When he tricks her into marriage, will she keep her vow to kill herself rather than submit to any man? Can she learn to trust as her father's sin haunt her future? When she learns the truth of her ancestry and gifted spirit from a clan enemy, will Leonce accept the news, or will distrust and jealousy doom their fragile union?

You can visit Mary at www.marymccall.net or http://marymccall.wordpress.com/


Julie LaLonde said...

Hi Mary and Eliza :-)
More goodies to add to my notes.
I feel like I'm taking a mini-class!
hope you're having a good time on your vacation. How wonderful to be able to visit the seat of the Vatican.

Thanks for the contest. Please enter me in it-- my address is rebelatheart@bellsouth.net


Carol L. said...

Hi Mary,
This was a very interesting post. The Pelican and the rainbow were new to me and I found that very interesting to read.I already have an autographed copy of Highland Treasure and absolutely loved Leonce and Hope.:)But I'd love to be put in for the basket :)
Carol L.

Maeve said...

Wonderful post, Mary. I was familiar with all of the symbols you mentioned except for the peacock. Fascinating! Highland Treasure sounds delightful. I know it's going to be a MUST READ. All the best to you and safe travels!

Chicks of Characterization said...

Hi Mary! What a wonderful post!!! You do learn something new every day! There were a few of the symbols that I had never seen before!! Highland Treasure sounds like a wonderful read!! Best of luck!!


librarypat said...

Thank you for another interesting post on symbols. Now I know what my peacocks represent, among other things.
HIGHLAND TREASURE sounds like a book that I will really enjoy. I seek out books set in the Highlands. The clan clashes wounded many people's souls as well as their bodies. Lady Hope is someone I can relate to.

librarypat AT comcast DOT net

Marianne Stephens said...

I have to admit, I'd never heard of the Dolphin, Peacock or Pelican symbols..fascinating insight!
Thanks for explaining all the symbols.