The history of the birth of Christian religious symbolism is based on the absolute prohibition of idolizing images in Christianity and on the need, for the first Christians, to hide their worship.
In fact, to hide from persecutors and to strengthen their devotion, Christians had to resort to symbolic representations, abstract forms and signs such as the cross, the stylized fish and many others. These are ancient and in many cases already existing symbols that have a new and profound meaning.
How is a Christian symbol born?
The symbol has the power to unite two different realities. Think for example of the flag or the anthem of a nation, in a tacit way an emotional bond has been created that makes us feel represented by these symbols. In the same way, pictorial representations of Byzantine origin also began to represent for Orthodox Christians the real, albeit spiritual, presence of what was depicted.
Religious symbolism is simple, immediate and universal, it is easily understood and allows the diffusion of key concepts in the different religions in many layers of the population.
The use of symbols in Christianity stems from the prohibition of idolizing the images that Christians inherited from the Jewish tradition. Initially, it was forbidden to represent in any way the image of Christ and Mary. For this reason the first Christians used them as a means of expression and belonging to religion.
The origin of sacred symbols
The symbols were of two types: one symbolic-abstract, with abstract signs and shapes such as the cross, the fish, the Greek letters, stylized and so on; the other symbolic-figured, with new and hidden meanings that could only be understood by Christians.
Since in the beginning the Christians did not have public places of worship but everything took place inside the houses and catacombs, the symbols used have mainly a pagan origin to which a deeper meaning was attributed. They are not simple decorations but an evolution of the teaching of truths of faith that lead Christians to a deep knowledge of Christianity.
The most common Christian symbols: JHS
Let’s start with JHS or Trigram. This appears for the first time around the third century among the abbreviations used in New Testament manuscripts. The abbreviation today is called Sacred Nomination and derives from the name Jesus in ancient Greek and capital letters.
The sigma in the original Greek version was written in the form of a sigma lunata, very similar to a C and this is why it is possible to encounter late-antique variants: IHC or JHC, which in the Latin alphabet became an S for all intents and purposes and the H which in Greek is an E, in the Middle Ages was mistaken for an H and for this reason it began to be reported with a different meaning: Jesus Hominum Salvator, or Jesus Saviour of men.
The stylized fish
The Icpescehthys is the name of the symbol represented by a stylized fish, used since the early Christians. The term is the transliteration into Latin characters of the Greek word meaning “fish”, and is a religious symbol of Christianity as it represents the acronym of the words.
The stylized fish is made from two curves that start at the same point, on the left at the head and cross on the right. This symbol was used, during the period of persecution, by Christians in the Roman Empire, as a sign of recognition: when a Christian met a stranger whose loyalty he wanted to know, he drew in the sand one of the arches that make up the ichthýs.
The dove: one of the oldest symbols
The dove is one of the oldest symbols of Christianity. It is an animal of gentle and mild nature, it is a symbol of purity and innocence, which has represented the divine intervention in numerous episodes. It is also mentioned as a symbol of divine will in some passages of the Bible.
The Christian cross
The Christian cross is one of the most widespread and well-known Christian symbols in the world. It is a stylized representation that the Romans used as an instrument of torture and capital execution by crucifixion. The symbolic form is very ancient, an archetype that even before Christianity had taken on universal significance.
The cross represents the union of heaven with earth, the two arms join the four cardinal points and was used to measure and organize the plans of buildings and cities. With the advent of Christianity it took on new and complex meanings, such as the memory of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The purity of the lamb
The Lamb is the image of Christ par excellence. It is a symbol of sweetness, innocence, simplicity and purity, meanings that we have attributed to him because of his behaviour and the white colour of his mantle. The lamb is the sacrificial animal.
During Good Friday Jesus takes on the sins of humanity and assumes the meaning of the sacrifice of the lamb and its saving role. For this reason the oldest images show us the lamb lying down and not standing. The symbol also refers to the resurrected and glorified Christ, as can be read in Revelation.
The palm tree as a symbol of rebirth
Finally the Palm, which in the symbolic meaning of Christianity refers to the East, the land where it is easy to find this slender and vigorous tree with large plumes of leaves arranged in a ray like those of the sun.
The meaning of the palm is that of victory, rebirth, ascent and immortality. It is a symbol already present in early Christian times, linked to a passage from the Psalms where it is said that when the palm blossoms an inflorescence will be produced even when it seems to be dead, just as martyrs receive their reward in heaven by being reborn into a new eternal life.