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God the Father
In the 1938 book Church Symbolism, F.R. Webber and Ralph Adams Cram sum up the central problem surrounding images of God the Father:
For about a thousand years, no attempt was made to portray the First Person of the Holy Trinity in human form. The early Christians believed that the words of Exodus 33, 20, "Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see Me and live," and St. John 1:18: "No man hath seen God at any time," were meant to apply not only to the Father Himself, but to all attempts at picturing Him as well.
Despite these potent words, western art eventually required some way to illustrate the presence of the Father, so the following representations developed, with the human form of the Father finally making its appearance in and after the tenth century C.E.
The Hand of God
Modern Stained Glass
Victorian Stained Glass
Twelfth-Century French Manuscript
Stained Glass; Leeds, England
God the Father in Human Form
God in the Burning Bush of Moses: the Naples Bible
Rohan Master illuminated manuscript; French, circa 1420
God the Son
Revelation 22:16b: "I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."
Modeled after a fourteenth-century stained glass. Carrying the banner of Victory.
After a tenth-century Italian sculpture.
On the book of seven seals from Revelation 5:1-6.
Pelican In Its Piety
see Birds section
Pelican In Its Piety
see Birds section
After the mausoleum of Gella Placidia, in Ravenna, Italy.
After several statues from the third century C.E.
Arguably from the Hours of the Virgin: "Verily thou art happy o sacred virgin Mary, and most worthy of all praise: Because Christ our God the sun of righteousness is sprung from thee."
An acronym for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" in Greek.
See also Peacock, Pelican, and Hen in Birds.
God the Holy Spirit
The "cloven flame" of Pentecost.
A seven-branched candelabrum representing the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: spiritual strength, knowledge, true godliness, counsel, understanding, wisdom, and holy fear. (Can also be rendered as seven lamps.)
The oldest and most common rendering of the Holy Spirit is the descending dove, cited in all four Gospels as the herald of the Father's approval of his Son on earth.
The Holy Trinity
This symbol of the Trinity is common in ecclesiastical embroidery. This illustrates that man's salvation is the work of the Son of God, prompted by divine love, and brought to pass by means of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Greek form "I-Am-That-I-Am"
The manifestation of the three as commonly seen in brasses and illuminated manuscripts starting as early as the eleventh century.
Also a symbol of the Virgin, where it is seen to represent the lily of purity.
Early Trinitarian symbol of the three fish
Familiar legend tells of Saint Patrick being faced with a group of pagans who demanded that he prove how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can be three persons and one in essence at the same time. Patrick is said to have plucked a shamrock from the turf and proceeded to question the pagans: "Is this one leaf or three? If three, why does it have only one stem? If one, why does it have three lobes?" When they could not answer, he said: "If you cannot explain the simple mystery of the shamrock, how can you hope to understand the profound mystery of the Holy Trinity?"
Triangle within a circle
Circle within a triangle:
The Trefoil: three circles joined as one
Sometimes referred to as the Holy Trinity's "coat-of-arms," this diagram illustrates the relationships between the three Persons of the Trinity and the Lord God: God in the center; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in each of the three corners, and paths between each Person marked either "IS" or "IS NOT" in Latin, highlighting the mystery of the simultaneous uniqueness, equality, and oneness of each in the wholeness of God.
Inspired by late fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript from Avignon, France. Note God the Father in the pope's miter.
Triangle that reads "Holy, Holy, Holy".
Refers to Mary, whose glory is borrowed from the Sun of Righteousness as the light of the moon is reflected from the sun. Originally a symbol of the Greek goddess Diana, the fathers of the early church adopted this sign to ease the transition for converted Hellenic Christians.
Many authorities believe that the fleur-de-lis is stylized of the Annunciation lily, thus its association with the Virgin Mary.
Madonna And Child:
typical from the twelfth century to modern times.
These types of monograms were common in stained glass and manuscripts as well as in stone-carving. Note that in all three of these examples, every letter in both the name MARIA and its Hebrew form MIRIAM are beautifully woven together.
Recalling the prophecy of Simeon in Luke 2:35: "... so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too;" refers to Mary's suffering for her son.
Refers to Revelation 12:1. See also forms of the nimbus, halo, and aureola.
Refers to Miriam, meaning "star of the sea."
See also the following entries in flowers and plants: almond, rose, carnation, marigold, jasmine, snowdrop, violet, cornflower, Lady's mantle, iris, pear, apple, lily, lily-of-the-valley.
There is rarely any inconsistency to the "four creatures" of the evangelists, and in this work we will deal only with the most widely accepted symbols: the winged man for Matthew, the winged lion for Mark, the winged ox for Luke, and the eagle for John.
These symbols derive primarily from two scriptural sources: Ezekiel 1:5–11 and Revelation 4:6–8. Ezekiel describes four living creatures each with four faces of a man, a lion, an angel, and an ox. Revelation, on the other hand, describes these same creatures with one head each. The beginning of the association between these creatures and the evangelists can be traced to Saint Irenaeus, second century bishop of what is now Lyon in France, who was the first to make the connection in his writings.
From the Municipal Library of Poitiers, MS17.
From the Municipal Library of Tours, France; second half of the fifteenth century: Nicolas de Lyre, Postilles sur la Bible, Angers, MS54.
Mark The Evangelist (d. c. 70)—April 25—patron of lawyers, the city of Venice, and prisoners: According to the third-century African philosopher Victorinus of Pettau, the gospel of Mark, which opens with the ministry of John the Baptist, is likened to a voice crying in the wilderness—thus the roaring lion. Further, the lion is often labeled as the King of Heaven and Mark's emphasis on the coming reign of God. See also lion in Beasts and Animals. Although Mark died in Alexandria, in Egypt, some legends or some traditions say that his remains were translated to Venice in the ninth century, leading to his patronage of that city. The lion is often depicted either watching Mark while he writes his Gospel or curled at his feet. Coat-of-arms: A winged and haloed lion on no particular field. (traditional)
Matthew The Evangelist (1st c.)—September 21—patron of tax collectors, accountants and bankers: Matthew is often rendered seated at a writing desk being attended to by an angel. Victorinus of Pettau associated Matthews gospel with the man in Revelation 4:7 because his gospel begins with Christ's earthly ancestry and his human nature. (Matthew the Evangelist sometimes thought to be the same person as Matthew the Apostle; see Saints section.) Coat-of-arms: A winged and haloed man on no particular field. (traditional)
Luke the Evangelist (1st c.)—October 18—patron of artists, physicians, and surgeons: Tradition has it that Luke was a painter, and is said to have carried a portrait of the Virgin Mary wherever he went, leading to many conversions, thus he is often pictured painting the Virgin and Child as an ox looks on placidly. As the gospel of Luke opens with a sacrifice by Zacharias, and given the ox's frequent use in nature as a sacrificial animal, the ox has come to be symbolic of the sacrificial nature of Christ's earthly life. So the humble animal has become the symbol for the saint and his gospel. Coat-of-arms: A haloed and winged ox on no particular field. (traditional)
John the Evangelist (ca. 6–ca. 100)—December 27—patron of authors, editors, theologians, and printers: As he is thought by some traditions to be the same person as the apostle John (see THE SAINTS section), his gospel was written from firsthand experience with Christ, and he therefore is rendered with very few exceptions as the apostle is described in scripture, as a beardless young man. John's gospel is compared to an eagle in flight as it begins with the divine nature of Christ. The eagle is always seen perched near the writing John. Coat-of-arms: A haloed eagle on no particular field. (traditional)
Aelred of Rievaulx (13th c.)—February 3—patron of bladder stone sufferers: The simple abbot is presented in equally simple vestments, with a book, referring to the saint's writing career, and a pastoral staff. His heraldry incorporates elements from the civic heraldry of Rievaulx, along with ivy, symbolic of Aelred's devotion to the ideals of undying friendship and love. Coat-of-arms: On a green field, a green tendril of ivy on a white FESS, between three white water bougets. (Cornwell)
Agatha (3rd c.)—February 5—patron of nurses, wet nurses, bell founders, bell ringers, and jewelers; invoked against diseases of the breast, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes: Agatha is presented holding a platter containing her own breasts, which were cut off, then miraculously restored. (The saint's patronage of bells stems, in fact, from artistic renderings of her breasts being mistaken for bells.) Her coat-of-arms includes another reference to the torment she suffered for her faith, a pincered eye. Coat-of-arms: A pair of pincers holding an eye, Surmounted by a platter bearing a pair of breasts, on no particular field. (Geldart)
Agnes (early 4th c.)—January 21—patron of virgins, young girls, and Girl Scouts and Girl Guides: Both Agnes's presentation and coat-of-arms bear her main attribute, a lamb, owing to the similarity between the saint's name and the Latin word for lamb, agnus. She is presented as a young girl bearing both the animal and a martyr's palm frond, as she was executed when she was twelve or thirteen. Coat-of-arms: On a red field, a white lamb at rest upon a gold book. (Geldart)
Alban (early 4th c.)—June 22—patron of refugees, torture victims, and converts: The first man in England executed on the charge of being a Christian is presented with his martyr's palm frond and the sword that beheaded him in his hands, and he wears both the armor of the Roman soldier he was, along with the cloak of the Christian priest he sheltered from persecution to complete his presentation. The priest's hat, Alban's sword, and the martyr's palm frond are all displayed on his coat-of-arms, along with a processional cross, possibly representing Alban's heralding the coming of Christianity to the British Isles. Coat-of-arms: On a blue field, a processional cross Bottony, Surmounted by a gladius (Roman sword) and a palm frond in Saltire, and in Base a priest's hat. (Webber)
Amalberga (late 8th c.)—January 8—invoked against bruises: Legend has it that Amalberga of Temse was a Lotharingian beauty who was wooed by the prince who was to become Charlemagne. Determined to remain a virgin consecrated to Christ, she fled to a church where Charlemagne laid his hands on her (bruising her for life, thus her invocation) but was miraculously unable to drag her from the nave, thus the frustrated prince left her unmolested. She escaped from him again by crossing a river on the back of a huge and agreeable sturgeon, thus the same fish appears both bearing the saint in her presentation, and as the main charge on her coat-of-arms. Coat-of-arms: On a white field, a black sturgeon Haurient between two blue Flaunches, each bearing a white lily. (Cornwell)
Andrew the Apostle (1st c.)—patron of Scotland, Greece, fishermen, and singers; invoked against sore throat: Andrew's heraldry and presentation feature the X-shaped cross upon which the saint was crucified; as he was a boatman and fisherman in his life before following Christ, a boat-hook is included in one of his coats-of-arms. Coat-of-arms I: On a blue field, a white Saltire Surmounted by a gold boat-hook outlined in blue. (Geldart/Cornwell) Coat-of-arms II: On a red field, a white Saltire. (Husenbeth)
Anne (1st c.)—July 26—patron of homemakers, grandmothers, miners, and lacemakers; invoked against sterility: The mother of Mary, Mother of Jesus, conceived without sin her daughter "immaculately," thus the lilies, symbol of purity, both flowering from a staff in her presentation and in the center of her coat-of-arms. Her presentation is completed with the saint holding two chicks in a nest, symbols of Mary and Jesus; her coat-of-arms also includes gold masonry, referring to the site where the saint and her husband, St. Joachim, first embraced: the Golden Gate of Jerusalem. Coat-of-arms: On a field of gold bricks mortared in black, a blue Inescutcheon charged with a sprig of white lilies. (Dorling)
Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109)—April 21—no patronages or invocations: Anselm is presented in his vestments as the archbishop of Canterbury with bishop's miter and crozier, as well as a book representing his influential writings on the nature of the church. His writings also inspired his heraldry, as the ship on the water refers to Anselm's insistence that the church remain independent from secular authority. Coat-of-arms: On a blue field, a gold ship adorned with white flags bearing red crosses Throughout (the coat-of-arms of St. George), sailing upon white waves. (Webber)
Anthony of Padua (early 13th c.)—June 13—patron of harvests, the poor, mariners, and swineherds; invoked against infertility, shipwrecks, starvation, and when looking for things lost: Anthony is usually presented cradling the infant Jesus, of whom the saint had a vision that comforted him as he was dying from painful illness; the lily of purity completes the saint's presentation. Anthony's heraldry displays two more of his most common attributes: loaves of bread for his dedication to the welfare of the poor, and a book for his gift of preaching the Gospel. Coat-of-arms: On a blue field, a gold book below a white Chief bearing three brown loaves of bread. (Cornwell)
Anthony the Great (251–356)—January 17—patron of amputees, basketmakers, butchers, and hermits; invoked against eczema and ergotism, a.k.a. shingles or "Saint Anthony's Fire": Saint Anthony, also known as Anthony Abbot and Anthony of Egypt, is symbolized both in presentation and armory with a Tau cross, or a cross missing its upper limb (see section on Crosses). The pig is another common feature of the saint's presentation, representing the animal that Anthony miraculously healed, which became his faithful companion; bells were used to call in pigs at the end of the day in those times, thus the inclusion of the bell. Coat-of-arms: On a gold field, a blue Tau cross. (Geldart)
Appolonia (3rd c.)—February 9—patron of dentists; invoked against toothaches: This saint's symbology arises from a bishop's report that a mob of anti-Christian rioters broke all of her teeth, and/or removed them with pincers, before martyring her by fire. Coat-of-arms: On a red field, a white tooth clenched by white pincers Palewise. (Geldart)
Augustine of Canterbury (late 6th c.)—May 27—patron of England: The first archbishop of Canterbury holds the church and monastery he built in his hand in his presentation; a bishop's miter and staff complete his image. His heraldry is among the more complicated armory in the canon, invoking symbolically his purity and devotion to ministry. Coat-of-arms: On a black field, a cross Throughout, in Canton a gold processional cross patee Surmounted by a white pallium, and In Canton Sinister a white lily. (Husenbeth)
Augustine of Hippo (354-430)—August 28—patron of printers, theologians, and brewers; invoked against sore eyes: Aurelius Augustinus Hipporensis, known to us in English as Augustine of Hippo, is presented in his role as a bishop. The heart afire is a common symbol for Augustine's Christian zeal, and the piercing arrows reference a prayer of the saint's: "Lord, you have wounded me with your Word." Coat-of-arms: On a blue field, a golden heart aflame pierced by two golden arrows in Saltire. (Geldart)
Excerpted from SAINTS, SIGNS, AND SYMBOLS by Hilarie Cornwell. Copyright © 2009 by Hilarie and James Cornwell. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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PART I: The Lord and the Saints
God the Father
God the Son
God the Holy Spirit
The Holy Trinity
PART II: Signs of the Spirit
The Church Year
Forms of the Nimbus, Halo, and Aureola
PART III: Symbols of Faith
Beasts and Animals
Flowers and Plants
How to Draw a Shield
Forms of the Shield
Color for Artists
Significance and Use of Colors
About the Authors