The cross is the acknowledged mark or sign of the Christian faith throughout the world. In Christian art the image of the lamb, the symbol of our Saviour, the Good
Shepherd, is frequently represented; and there are various passages both in the Old and New Testament which refer to Christ under the image of the Lamb.
We find abundant symbolism in the various emblems and attributes of the apostles, saints, and martyrs. The mystic symbols of the four Evangelists, held in great favour and respect by the designer for ecclesiastical work, are the four winged creatures - viz. the winged man for St. Matthew, the winged lion for St. Mark, the winged ox for St. Luke, and the eagle for St. John. St. Mark is supposed to have been buried in the great church in Venice dedicated to his name, and the winged lion has become the distinguishing badge of that city.
In the Catacombs we find the Holy Sacrament of Baptism symbolically represented. The most frequent symbol is a fish, often portrayed on the tombs of departed Christians. Sometimes three fishes are represented, entwined in a triangular fashion, symbolising the Divine Trinity. On Plate No. 2 the emblem of the Holy Trinity in three different forms is given. Also on the same plate a number of monograms are shown, which were devised by early Christian artists to express the sacred names of our Saviour.
Plate No. 2.
Sacred Monogram From Winchester Tapestry.
The Name Of Noster.
Christ In The Our Lord
Circle Of Eternity Jesus Christ"
Three" Fishes Symbolizing Baptism.
Emblem Of Trinity
Emblem Of Trlnlty The Three Eternal Beincs In Unity Symbol Of The Holy Ghost
In the ninth century symbolical renderings of griffins, unicorns, lions, eagles, and elephants appeared plentifully on chasubles and copes. There is in the Victoria and Albert Museum a remarkable chasuble of blue satin, on the front of which are embroidered in gold threads and coloured silks a number of lions and griffins enclosed by scroll work. It is said to be thirteenth-century English work. On the back is a broad orphrey containing four quatrefoil panels : in these are the Crucifixion of our Lord, the Virgin and Child, St. Peter and St. Paul, and the Stoning of St. Stephen. This is the earliest example of English needlework in the collection in which animals are represented.
In Babylonian embroideries we are told that very fine materials were symbolical, and stood for the elements of the world - fine flax for the earth, purple for the sea, scarlet for the blaze of fire, and blue for the firma-mental azure.
The following are the meanings attached to the chief colours found in Christian art:
White is the emblem of purity, innocence, faith, joy, life, and light.
Red is emblematical of the passion of our Lord, the sufferings and the martyrdom of His Saints.
Blue is emblematical of heaven. It signifies piety, sincerity, godliness, and divine contemplation.
Yellow or gold signifies brightness and goodness of God, faith and fruitfulness.
Green is used by the Church on ordinary Sundays and ferials (week-days). It signifies bountifulness, hope, mirth, youth, and prosperity.
Violet signifies passion, suffering, sorrow, humility, deep love, and truth. Martyrs are frequently clad in violet or purple garments.
Black is symbolical of death, darkness, despair, and mourning.
White, red, green, violet, and black are called canonical colours.
Much has been written on the symbolism of plants and flowers, and many workers know their various attributes. The lily is the acknowledged sign of purity, the honeysuckle of enduring faith, the olive branch of reconciliation and peace, the oak of strength, and the palm, as the symbol of martyrdom, belongs to all those saints who suffered death in the cause of Christ. The pomegranate, burst open and displaying its seeds, was accepted in early times as the emblem of future life and of hope in immortality. The apple is an emblem of the original sin as it alludes to the fall of man. The vine with the Greeks was sacred to Dionysos, and represented to them the divine, life-giving earth-spirit continually renewing itself and bringing joy to men.
Of the less important emblems found in Christian art, the anchor might be named as the symbol of hope, firmness, and patience; also the arrow, an emblem of martyrdom. A heart depicted pierced with an arrow symbolises contrition, deep repentance, and devotion in trial. (See the centre of altar-frontal, Plate No. 15.)
The circle, or ring, is the emblem of eternity.
The dove, when accompanied by the nimbus, is the symbol of the Holy Ghost; when used alone, it is the emblem of meekness and purity; when with an olive branch in its beak, it is the emblem of peace.
The griffin. - This creature, representing evil, is winged, with bird's claws for its hind feet and lion's paws for its fore feet ; the beak is strong and eagle-like - a combination suggestive of terror and power.
The dragon is the symbol of the Evil Spirit. The Devil has also been symbolised by the serpent, and with direct authority of the Holy Scriptures (Rev. xii. 9 ; also xx. 2).
The nimbus, aureole, and glory signs cannot properly be called symbols. They are really attributes, as they express nothing when used alone. The nimbus was adopted by the Christians at a very early period ; it is found in the catacombs of Rome, dating as far back as the fourth century, and it disappeared altogether in the seventeenth century. From the earliest times the nimbus encircled the head like a disc or plate behind the head until the fifteenth century, and during the following two hundred years the disc was replaced by an unadorned circlet, or ring, hovering over the head.
The aureole encircles the whole body - while the nimbus encircles the head - and envelops it in a field of radiance. Sometimes it takes the form of the body, clinging to it and appearing as a fringe of light, or it may be removed a short distance from the body, and in this case, the luminous rays do not closely follow the form of the figure.
The aureole is the attribute of supreme power and divine omnipotence. The term "glory" is used to express the combination of the nimbus and the aureole.
The embroideress engaged on church needlework may find these notes on symbolism, brief as they are, of some help to her. If they do nothing more, they will serve to warn her against some of the mistakes which frequently occur. Symbols are very often wrongly used, and emblems of the highest dignity are placed in secondary positions, and most holy signs occupy places where they are knelt upon and sometimes stood upon. The bonds of symbolism, rules of colour, and laws of fitness should aid rather than hinder the designer and worker.