Christian Symbolism and Circles
(Part of the "Sacred Circles" Art Unit)

Gute Hirte
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Christianity is a religion rich in symbolism. Most central is the image of the cross, but many other symbols have been associated with Christian beliefs.

Early in Christian history, when the followers of Jesus were persecuted for their beliefs, they adopted symbols to secretly identify themselves. One of the most common symbols used was a picture of a fish. The Greek word for fish is IXTHUS (sometimes spelled "ICHTHUS"), and the individual letters of this word stand for the Greek phrase, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." When meeting, one person would draw an arc in the sand, and a fellow believer would draw another arc to complete the symbol of the fish. Sometimes three fish were drawn together, signifying the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Jesus was sometimes portrayed as a lamb, or as a shepherd who was holding a lamb, and the Holy Spirit was often represented by a dove. At other times, the symbol for the Holy Spirit was flames of fire, based on events recorded in the Book of Acts in the Bible. After the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, disciples gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Shabuoth, a festival that falls fifty days after Passover. At that time, the Holy Spirit was said to have descended upon them, appearing as tongues of flame that circled about the heads of those gathered. This event, viewed as a baptism by fire and the spiritual gift that Jesus promised to his disciples, was known as the Pentacost.

The eye has been used to symbolize the all-seeing eye of God, and this symbol is still used today. Furthermore, virtually everyone carries this symbol with them! Look carefully at the back of a dollar bill, and notice that The Great Seal of the United States contains Christian symbolism. The eye at the top of the pyramid represents God, and the Latin words surrounding the seal translate roughly to mean: "He (referring to God) approves our beginning. A new order for the ages." Looking closer at the pyramid, notice that it has 13 tiers, representing the original 13 colonies. The Roman numerals at the base of the pyramid are "1776."

But what of the use of circles in Christianity? Huge, circular "rose" windows were found in many cathedrals in Europe, and it is interesting to note that the symbols found in many of these windows were often similar or identical to symbols found in the zodiac--another ancient circle.

The west rose window of Notre Dame in Paris features the Virgin Mary with her child in the center, surrounded by 24 fields. In addition to symbols for virtues, vices, and prophets, all twelve signs of the zodiac are included in the window.

This cross-over of symbolism is also seen in the Cathedral of Lyon which seems to use the Chinese T'ai Chi or "yin-yang" image at its center.

The Celtic cross--a pagan symbol which represented the four seasons, four positions of the sun, the four directions and four elements--was adapted as a symbol for Christianity, and many Christian temples were built on former places of worship for the Druids. In the Book of Kells, a richly illustrated transcription of the Christian Gospels, Mark, Luke and John were presented by an lion, ox, and eagle, respectively. In some rose windows, the placement of these saints corresponds to the positions of Leo, Taurus and Scorpio in a zodiac wheel. (The Scorpion and Eagle are both used as symbols in astrology.)

Other rose windows use the cross at the center, and this is strikingly similar to the cardinal points that were established in the sacred circles of many religions.

One of the earliest creators of Christian mandalas was Hildegard of Bingen, an 11th century nun who was later recognized as a Saint. From an early age, Hildegard had spiritual visions, and as an adult she began painting symbolic circles. She was also an extraordinary writer, musician, and physician of the time.

Another sacred circle in Christianity is the halo or "nimbus"--the circular light that artists painted around the heads of those who were considered holy. This symbol first showed up in Christian art during the 5th century, but it had already been used by Buddhists and Greeks to represent a person of spirituality as early as the 3rd century. Some painters--both Christian and Buddhist--made use of a "mandorla," an almond shaped light that encircled the whole body of a holy person (usually an image of Christ). Some Christian "halos" featured a cross figure within the circle behind the head of the Christ.

The labyrinth was another symbol that was adapted by Christianity, with one of the more famous ones being located in the Cathedral of Chartres. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth does not seek to confuse or deceive, and winds its way to the center, thus symbolizing man's search for God. In the course of the labyrinth, sometimes one is close to God, and sometimes one is far away. With persistence, the center of the labyrinth is eventually reached, and there one finds a six-petaled white rose--the Christian symbol for love. People today still walk the labyrinth as a form of meditation. While the labyrinth is now considered a Christian symbol, one of the oldest labyrinths was discovered in Greece, dating from 2500-2000 BC.

Some of the symbols associated with the followers of Jesus are unique to this belief system, but many ancient symbols and sacred circles of other religions were simply given new spiritual meaning as Christianity spread throughout the world.




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