Video Transcript: Unit 3 Lecture 2

For this lecture, I thought I would take you on a little journey into Church history that will eventually become very important. That is the history of art in the church. We as people of the Christian faith have always used some form of visual communication to inform others of who we are and what we believe. Already in the early church there were many symbols which were used to mark the graves of those who were Christ followers and which also gave a hidden but clear message of the faith.

 the chi rho      the chi rho highlighted

One of the very early symbols of Jesus  was the intersection of the letters ch and r known as the chi rho symbol. The Ch in greek is indicated by the x in the middle of the symbol pictured here from the Vatican museum of early Christianity.  It is the first letter of the word Christ. From the very beginning, Christians, who took the name of Christ upon themselves, knew that to refer to Jesus as the Christ was the highest honor to give their Lord. To say he was the Christ was to say he was the king of kings and lord of lords.  The rho is the vertical line with the handle on it at the top. This is the Greek letter rho which is the second letter of the title of the Christ.   

It is also important to notice another of the ancient Christian symbols found in this illustration. That of the alpha and omega. In the book of revelation when Jesus appears to John, he is the glorified one who is the alpha and omega the beginning and the end. The alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. With naming those two letters, the person we find walking among the candlesticks in John's vision uses the first and last letter to refer to the whole. So in saying he is the alpha and omega, the early church was saying that the Christ was the one in whom everything could be found. Nothing was outside of his kingship.

 alpha and omega highlighted

The symbol of the anchor is present from the very earliest times. It is a symbol of who Jesus is for us as the anchor of our hope as it is referred to in the book of Hebrews chapter 6. While we cannot be sure of this, it seems to historians that the anchor served as a very early sign of the cross. But since the cross was a symbol of Roman torture, it was disguised by the early followers of Jesus in the form of an anchor.
Christian anchor symbol

  In this illustration from very ancient times, found in the Roman catacomb tomb of  Callisto, the symbol of the cross is embedded in the symbol of the anchor. Also one can see that the anchor itself has been altered a bit to have the hooks appear to resemble a bird in downward flight which was a symbol of the Holy Spirit who came upon Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove.

 In this engraving from the tomb of St Sebastian in the catacombs, we see three of the early symbols of Christianity. The anchor the fish and the chi rho. The fish had many references for the early Christians. It reminded them of Peter the fisherman, of the fish caught in two of the major miracles of Jesus, of the calling to be fishers of men, of the miracle of the five loaves and two fish, and most important, the letters of the Greek word for fish, ichthus, formed an acrostic of the sentence, Jesus Christ, God's Son, Our Lord.  The fish symbol became a source of a great many themes of comfort for the  people who were being  buried in the catacombs.

various symbols together

   A very different symbol is that of the peacock. It came into use very early in the catacombs of ancient Rome to symbolize the Christian belief that we would see resurrection. It is thought that this was based on the fact that the peacock loses its feathers each year and grows new ones.. So its feathers are a symbol of the dying and coming to life of the Christian. This scene is from the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome.

 fresco with peacock

The peacock also had use as the reminder of the all seeing eye of God. Its tail feathers when shown in broad plumage would have many "eyes” that could be seen. These were taken as examples of the all seeing and ever present eye of God.

  In this illustration we see  both a dove who symbolizes the Holy Spirit and a cluster of grapes on a vine. In john 15 Jesus tells his disciples I am the vine, you are the branches. If you abide in me you will produce much fruit. On the tomb engravings of people who had been known as fruitful followers of Jesus, one can find the symbol of the cluster of grapes. These were people who produced much fruit as they remained in the vine. The Spirit is often found near the fruit as Paul wrote to the Galatians that we were to pursue the fruit of the spirit love, joy, peace, patience and so on.

 symbols of dove and grape cluster

These two photos depict what is called an orante which is a praying figure. It is meant to depict a soul at peace in paradise.  The early Christians were committed to the idea that they, as St Paul had said, to live is Christ and to die is gain. So on their tombstones, they would paint a figure with arms upraised in prayer. They saw no fear, no distrust, no reason to hide. When the person had died and had been translated to paradise, they could spend all their time in communion with God. That was their conviction, it was depicted in figures such as these.

 orante      orante

So that is a little introduction to the art that speaks to us even today. As we observe these symbols in the tombs outside of Rome, they take us back to the days of the early church when it was dangerous often to be known as a Christian. But when they marked the graves of their family and friends in the faith, they showed their faith in the way they decorated the tombs. I hope this has been helpful to you as you too seek to gain an understanding of the ancient church in order for us to live faithfully today.

Last modified: Thursday, March 16, 2023, 8:42 AM