Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Monday, March 14, 2011

Guest Author Mary McCall on Early Christian Symbolism Part III

Welcome back Mary!  If you haven't read Part I and Part II of Mary's blog series on Early Christian Symbolism, click on the links to check them out!

Early Christian Symbolism: Part III
by Mary McCall

Many apologies to all for the delay in continuing this series. Let me begin by announcing I am planning to continue the contest that was going on when life situations hindered my progress, so this is a Purple Post. On any blog post I do for the next two weeks 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 after the last of the purple posts, I’ll do a drawing for a “purple” gift box.

Visiting Italy was interesting and seeing some of these symbols on monuments, ruins, and catacombs was wonderful. At some point, I’ll have to also tell you about visiting a Venetian glass factory that still uses the same process and furnace they used in the fourth century.

But back to early Christian symbols…

The Good Shepherd: Some of the earliest depictions of Christ show Him as the Good Shepherd. This type of representation is found in the Catacombs. If you find time, I highly recommend the virtual tour of Le Catacombe di Pricilla at http://www.catacombepriscilla.com/pagine-eng/home.htm. The tour is presented in English and shows some of the most beautiful and earliest Christian symbols in remarkably wonderful preservation.

Palm: victory and martyrdom. Palms are especially made use of on Palm Sunday. The ashes of palms used on Palm Sunday are later burned and used on the next year's Ash Wednesday to symbolize mortality and penance.

Scallop shell: the sea shell, especially the scallop shell, is the symbol of Baptism, and is found frequently on Baptismal fonts. The dish used by priests to pour water over the heads of catechumens in Baptism is often scallop-shaped. The scallop, too, is a symbol for the Apostle James the Greater.

Butterfly: The beautiful butterfly, with the power of flight, emerging from the apparently lifeless cocoon: what could be a more perfect symbol of the Resurrection?

Unicorn: the unicorn -- mentioned in the Bible, by the way: see Psalm 21:22, 28:6 (Psalms 22 and 29 in the King James Bible), 92:11; and Isaias 34:7 -- is a symbol of chastity and of Christ Himself. Medieval legend had it that the unicorn, a feisty and fierce animal, could not be easily hunted, but if a virgin were to sit in the forest, the unicorn would find her and lay its head upon her lap. The hunter could then come by and take its horn, which was seen as having profound medical qualities (for ex., it was said to eliminate the harmful effects of a poisoned liquid). The picturing of a virgin and unicorn together, then, was common during the Age of Faith -- the former representing Our Lady, and the latter representing Christ, Who brought forth the "horn of salvation."

Ermine (winter weasel): the ermine was believed to have rather died than get its pure white coat dirty and, so, it came to symbolize innocence, moral purity, and the Christian's desire to die rather than commit a mortal sin. Its fur was used to adorn the clothes of clerics and royalty.

Turtledove: because of their reputation for taking only one mate to whom they are faithful for life, turtledoves are a symbol of Christian fidelity. They are also known for their love of seclusion, a fact mentioned by St. Augustine (City of God, Book 16, chapter 24).

Scarab: for our Mummy/Brendan Frasier fans, an ancient symbol of regeneration (the scarab was an especially prevalent symbol in Egypt), the scarab was adopted by Coptic Christians, too, as a symbol for the same and for the Resurrection, in particular, and for Christ Himself. Habacuc 2:11 was often translated as "For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beetle out of the timber shall answer it." Psalm 21:7's mention of "worm" ("But I am a worm, and no man: the reproach of men, and the outcast of the people") was often translated as "scarab," and St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (A.D. 340-397) referred to Christ as “The Good Scarabaeus” numerous times, with other Church Fathers, such as SS. Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, etc.) following suit.

Alpha-Omega: Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, became a symbol for Christ due to His being called "the First and the Last." The roots of symbolizing these attributes of God go back further, all the way to the Old Testament where, in Exodus 34:6, God is said to be "full of Goodness and Truth." The Hebrew spelling of the word "Truth" consists of the 3 letters "Aleph," "Mem," and "Thaw" -- and because "Aleph" and "Thaw" are the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the ancients saw mystical relevance in God's being referred to as "Truth." At any rate, the Greek Alpha and Omega as a symbol for Christ has been found in the Catacombs, Christian signet rings, post-Constantine coins, and the frescoes and mosaics of ancient churches.

5-point Star: the Star of Bethlehem; the 5 Wounds of Christ. This symbol inverted, such that a single point is at the bottom and two points are at the top, is a Satanic symbol indicating a goat's head.

Torch of Truth: Symbol of the Dominican Order, often shown being carried in the mouth of a little black and white dog. It originates in a dream St. Dominic's mother had when she was pregnant with the Saint: she dreamed of her child as a little black and white dog illuminating the world by carrying a torch in his mouth. The Dominican Order St. Dominic founded is known as the "Order of Preachers," the colors of its habit are white and black.

Rose: the Holy Faith, Our Lady, martyrdom, the secrecy of penance. Five roses grouped together symbolize the five wounds of Christ.

Owl: the owl has a double meaning, and please remember, we are looking at early meanings: 1) the perfidious Jews who, preferring darkness to light, reject Jesus, and 2) (from the Aberdeen Bestiary), "In a mystic sense, the night-owl signifies Christ. Christ loves the darkness of night because he does not want sinners - who are represented by darkness - to die but to be converted and live... The night-owl lives in the cracks in walls, as Christ wished to be born one of the Jewish people, saying: 'I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel'. But Christ is crushed in the cracks of the walls, because he is killed by the Jews. Christ shuns the light in the sense that he detests and hates vainglory... The night-owl flies at night in search of food, as Christ converts sinners into the body of the Church by preaching. In a moral sense, moreover, the night-owl signifies to us not just any righteous man, but rather one who lives among other men yet hides from their view as much as possible. He flees from the light, in the sense that he does not look for the glory of human praise."

We’ll continue this next time with a few more picture, then possible take a look at the symbolic meanings behind numbers, colors, and a few of the more common Latin abbreviations often seen in art and manuscripts.

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/


Angelique Armae said...

Thanks for all the info, Mary! Such interesting stuff. I never knew about the Ermine or the Owl.

Anita Clenney said...

Wow, what a wealth of knowledge. I loved this post and learned so much. Thanks so much for sharing.

Chicks of Characterization said...

Wow,thanks for all the valuable information!!!! Loved it!!!


She said...

Interesting post. I learned a lot. I never knew about the owl, roses, or ermine.


Kate Dolan said...

Many of those symbols were ones I was not familiar with or had meanings I'd not considered. Thanks for sharing! (Now I have to go back and read the first two parts of this article).
For those who want to visit the catacombs but can't make it to Europe - if you're in the Washington DC area, I recommend a trip to the Franciscan Monastery in NE (close to Catholic University). They have replicas you can tour.