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Symbols of Christian Art

Symbols play a central role in Christian art; in particular, different sets of symbols have become associated with unique religious meanings since their use in early Christian art. There are three main categories under which Christian religious symbols may be grouped: plants, animals and colors. These religious symbols hold unique meaning in Christianity and as such are representative symbols of the religion as a whole.

Christian Religious Symbols: Plants
Palm: For Christians, the palm represents triumph over earthly suffering and desires. It is featured in several early Christian works, particularly those depicting Jesus of Nazareth’s entry into the city of Jerusalem. One example of such a painting is the noted painting of the Palm Sunday Procession by Vyacheslav Shvarts. However, the palm was also used in art by the Romans and was eventually adopted by early Christians.
Lily: This Christian religious symbol is dominantly featured in depictions of Mary, Jesus’ mother. As such, the lily is associated with spiritual notions of purity, chastity as well as simplicity. It is also featured in Christian works of the Immaculate Conception.
Olive: A staple crop of the Hebrew peoples, the olive is a Christian symbol that is representative of fecundity as well as peace. Its association with peace derives from the story of the Great Flood, in which Noah sent out a dove at the end of the flood. The dove soon returned with an olive branch, which was representative of the Covenant between God and humankind. As such it is featured in many depictions of the Great Flood.
Reed: The reed is depicted in images of the Crucifixion, as the Romans used a reed attached to a sponge in order to give vinegar to Jesus while he was on the cross. In addition to being symbolic of the Passion, the reed is also used in representations of John the Baptist, as he performed his ministry in the river Jordan, as seen in a painting entitled John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness), which has been attributed to Caravaggio.

Christian Religious Symbols: Animals
Lamb: The lamb is associated with Jesus, as is evident in a reference made to it in the New Testament: “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1: 29). In several paintings, Jesus is depicted with a lamb, representing the redemption of sins through Jesus’ crucifixion The lamb can also be symbolic of John the Baptist when depicted with a cruciform banner, as John was the first individual to recognizes Jesus as the lamb of God. More than 80 frescoes created during the first and fourth centuries depicted Jesus either with a lamb or sheep on his shoulders or at his side, as found in Roman catacombs dating from this time period.
Dove: The dove is emblematic of the Holy Spirit, one of the three elements that comprises the Holy Trinity in Christianity. In addition, the dove is symbolic of the Holy Covenant between God and humankind. The image of the dove is featured, for example, in The Throne of God as a Trinitarian Image, a marble relief that has been dated to approximately 400 CE.
Serpent: Representative of evil, the serpent figures in Christian art as a symbol of Satan, as it was in the form that Satan appeared to Adam and Eve in Genesis. The serpent is usually represented as having a female face, as can be found in the carving of Adam, Eve and the female serpent that adorns the entrance of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Phoenix: Because legend has it that the phoenix was continually reborn, it is representative of the resurrection. It was featured heavily in jewelry, amulets and tombstones constructed during the first century.

Christian Symbols: Colors
White: Representative of purity and holiness, white is linked to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who traditionally is depicted as wearing white in paintings of the Immaculate Conception. In some instances, white is worn under robes of blue, as is the case in Bartolome Murillo’s painting of the Assumption.
Black: In Christian art, black is linked to mourning, evil and the underworld. This can be seen in Van der Goes’ The Fall, in which shadows are used to mourn Adam and Eve’s transgression. However, when paired with white, black is considered to be symbolic of humility.
Blue: Associated with Mary, blue in Christian art represents clarity and truth and is therefore also associated with heaven. Celebrated Renaissance artist Botticelli depicts Mary, Jesus Mother in a blue robe in his the Cestello Annunciation
Purple: This Christian symbol is associated with the feast of Easter and represents repentance and sorrow. Jesus is featured as wearing a purple robe in a sixteenth century depiction of the Crucifixion by Quentin Massys.

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