Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols
by Mike Aquilina
illustrated by Lea Marie Ravotti
Our Sunday Visitor, 2008
More devotional than academic, this book begins by discussing the theology, history, and culture of ancient Christian symbols. Aquilina focuses on the Bible and the Church fathers’ explanations and discussions for each symbol. Ancient saints such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, and the historian Eusebius of Caesarea, established broad horizons for the Church’s symbols, believing that “Since their God is the Lord of all history … He was active in pagan cultures as well, preparing the way for them to receive the Gospel someday.”
These pagan symbols took on sacramental meaning when Christians adopted them. The fish is perhaps the best known ancient Christian symbol, as widespread as the cross is today. Like many such images, it represented both Christ and Christians, though some depictions relate to only one of the two. “In Greek the phrase ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’ produced the acronym ICHTHYS, the Greek word for fish,” Aquilina writes. Symbols had depth and therefore multiple meanings, so the symbol also signified that a Christian outside of the Church was like a fish out of water, “condemned to a spiritual death.”
The fish also pointed to Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. It played a central role in paintings depicting agape meals or the Eucharist.
Pagans depicted dolphins on gravesites, since the animal carried the deceased on its back to the afterlife. The ancient Hebrews also loved the animal. Not surprisingly, Christians adopted the dolphin as a symbol for Christ carrying the souls of the dead to heaven. “Sometimes [dolphins] appear crushing the head of a sea monster or an octopus, representing Satan. Often they are shown twisted around a trident or an anchor, suggesting Christ on the Cross. In underground Rome there is even an image of a dolphin with an exposed heart.”
Orthodox theology underlay these symbols, giving them spiritual power and allowing the faithful to express their beliefs and take comfort in them. Because of widespread illiteracy, Christian artwork played a greater role than it does in the age of literacy. Aquilina’s use of biblical and patristic sources connects these symbols to underlying beliefs. People had great faith in Christ, yet needed something tangible. Very much a part of the fabric of the Roman Empire, Jesus’ followers did not try to escape from the wider culture.
Aquilina shows not only how symbols had a life of their own, but how one image could easily generate another, or how a culture or religion’s symbols could take on new meanings in Christianity.
Thus another important source for Christian symbols was the Jewish and Old Testament heritage. Ancient synagogues often depicted biblical scenes, such as David fighting Goliath. Christians used the symbol of Moses. Like many, Christian and otherwise, the meaning of this symbol, Aquilina tells us, blends into other personages or meanings. For Christians, Moses really meant Peter: “In several images, Peter appears receiving the divine law from Jesus Christ, just as Moses received the tablets of the law from God”—a Christian adoption of an ancient Hebrew imagery.