If the Cross is the foremost Christian symbol, others abound almost without end. This is only natural. Human beings are finite and move in a world of things. The workings of the human mind are aided by various senses such as sight and hearing, even smell. Our thoughts, beliefs and convictions are aided by the sight of relevant pictorializations. Hence the growth of Christian symbolism. Let us consider just a few examples, many of which the reader will no doubt be familiar.
A hand, palm forward and generally directed downward, but sometimes upward, represents God the Father, the Creator. God the Son is often represented as a lamb (the sacrificial object), often supporting a staff with a Christian banner on it. Christ is also represented by a fish; the Greek word for fish, ichthus, in our alphabet, contains all the initial letters in order of the Greek phrase meaning, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”. God the Holy Ghost is naturally depicted as a dove descending from heaven, as tongues of flame, the form in which he descended upon the disciples at Pentecost.
The letters IHC (or sometimes IHS) are often seen in religious art and decoration. They stand for the first two and the last letters of the word JESUS in Greek, being therefore a contraction of the same. Again, the letters INRI are often used in Christian art and decoration and they stand for the initial letters of the Latin inscription which the Roman soldiers posted at the top of Jesus’ cross, meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”.
The Greek letters Å and Ω (Alpha and Omega) are very frequently used as symbolizing the omnipotence and everlasting nature of Christ’s divinity. It will be recalled that in Revelation 1:8, St. John writes, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, sayeth the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty”. The letters are of course the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet.
It is not easy to depict something so abstract as the Holy Trinity, but that is traditionally done by using a triangle or a trefoil (something like a clover leaf) or some similar trifold figure or arrangement.
A very large number of the Saints are represented by one symbol or another, but it will be sufficient here to recall those pertaining to the Evangelists and one or two others.
The four Evangelists, so-called, are the writers of four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Saint Matthew is represented by a winged man or angel. This is meant to recall the fact that his Gospel teaches us in particular about the human nature of Christ.
Saint Mark is represented by a winged lion (the lion being the king of beasts) to suggest that his Gospel emphasizes especially the royal dignity of Christ.
Depicting Saint Luke is a winged ox, a sacrificial animal, and this has reference to the stress which his Gospel places on the sacrificial aspects of Christ’s life.
Finally, in the case of Saint John, the symbol is that of an eagle soaring to heaven, and seems to have been assigned to the Evangelist because his gaze pierced further into the mysteries of heaven that that of any other man. These four depictions seems to have had their inspiration in the visions of Ezekiel and of Saint John the Divine as recorded in Ezekiel I:10 and Revelation IV:7.
Finally, it may be noted that Saint Peter is usually represented by crossed keys, in obvious reference to Christ’s conferral of the keys of the kingdom of heaven upon him (St. Matthew 16:19). The great Apostle to the Gentiles, Saint Paul, is generally depicted by a sword, the instrument of his martyrdom at Rome, and frequently with an open book bearing the words Spiritus Gladius, “The Sword of the Spirit”, because of the fighting vigor with which he carried the Gospels to the gentiles.
These are only tantalizing glimpses of a pictorial symbolism which greatly enriches our religion and will well repay any further reading in the many books which have been written on the subject.