The plants found in sacred objects and images, for example the vines and palm trees, are often mentioned in the Bible. In other cases, they are linked to a particular event that is important in Christian belief.
Ears of wheat symbolise the body of Christ and the bread taken during the service of Holy Communion. During the Last Supper, the last meal that Christ shared with his followers before his death, he gave bread to his companions and told them to eat it in remembrance of him. In the Roman Catholic tradition worshippers accept the bread as the body of Christ, while for many Protestants, Holy Communion is a symbolic commemoration of the Last Supper.
Wheat is also a sign of God's bounty and of the harvest. It represents the word of God that grows on fertile soil.
Grapes and Vines
Grapes symbolise the blood of Christ and the wine taken during the service of Holy Communion. During the Last Supper, the last meal that Christ shared with his followers before his death, he gave wine to his companions and told them to drink it in remembrance of him. In the Roman Catholic tradition worshippers accept the wine as the blood of Christ, while for many Protestants, Holy Communion is a symbolic commemoration of the Last Supper.
A vine and its branches also represent Christ and his followers.
The palm is an ancient symbol of victory in war. It then became a symbol of Christ's victory over death. When Christ entered Jerusalem shortly before his Crucifixion, he came in triumph and his followers greeted him with palm branches. Later he was arrested and killed, but three days later he rose from the dead. Christ's Resurrection is the central belief of the Christian faith.
Chalice with wheat and grapes
Biais Ainé et Cie
Silver-gilt with chased decoration
Museum no. M.25-1983
Window showing the Archangel Michael with a vine and grapes
Museum no. 7-1881
Stained glass with St Stephen on the right holding a palm branch
Sts Bartholomew, St Agatha and St Stephen
Museum no. C.47-1919
Animals are often mentioned in the Bible. In the book of Genesis, for example, the serpent tempts Eve to eat forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. For this, he is cursed and becomes a vile creature fated to crawl in the dust. Christian teaching uses the nature of animals to explain spiritual qualities. For example, in the face of death, Jesus surrendered to God's will with the meekness of a lamb.
Sheep and Lamb
Sheep represent vulnerable human beings who need the guidance, care and protection of Christ, the Good Shepherd. The 'Lamb of God' symbolises the sacrifice that Christ made for humankind, since it was a Jewish custom to sacrifice lambs. The lamb also reflects Christ's innocence and the white fleece his purity.
The lamb is sometimes shown holding a cross or a banner to signify Christ's victory over death through his Resurrection.
Dogs are believed to be loyal, watchful and trustworthy. When a dog is linked to a particular person, these qualities become associated with that person.
Snake and Serpent
Snakes and serpents are symbols of the devil. They are thought to be crafty and deceitful. Saints and angels, particularly the Archangel Michael, are often shown trampling snakes to show the triumph of good over evil.
Snakes can also symbolise wisdom and the power to heal. They also recall the story in the Old Testament in which God transformed Moses' staff into a snake and back again to convince non-believers.
Altar cross with an ivory plaque showing the Lamb of God
Robert Edgar Stone
Patinated copper with silver, ivory and enamel details
Museum no. M.25-1993
Stained glass panel of a donor praying, with a dog behind
Hendrik van Diependale
Jan van Diependale
Museum no. 6914-1860
Head from a pastoral staff in the form of a snake
About 1700 1825
Silver gilt filigree and enamel
Museum no. 246:1, 2-1896
Birds and other winged creatures have come to represent certain aspects of Christian teaching. For example, the dove signifies the Holy Spirit and a dragon is a symbol of the devil.
The dove is a symbol of purity and peace. In the Old Testament story of the Flood, a dove returns to Noah's ark with an olive branch to show that the waters were going down and that God had made peace with the world.
When shown with a halo, a dove is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
In legend, the pelican pecks at its breast to feed its young with its own blood if food is scarce. It is a symbol of unselfish love, charity and sacrifice, and therefore of Christ who gave his own life to save humankind from sin and death.
In Christian belief, the dragon is a symbol of the devil and therefore of evil. A struggle against the dragon represents a conflict with the powers of darkness. Defeated dragons are shown chained or trodden underfoot by the victor. In medieval legend, St George, the patron saint of England, was a Christian knight who killed a dragon that was terrorising the local population. The people then converted to Christianity.
Ciborium with a pelican
Silver-gilt, raised and embossed
Museum no. M.124:1, 2-1909
Stained glass window showing St George and the Dragon
C. Edwin Guilt
Museum no. C.315-1976
Reliquary of St Scholastica with a hand holding a dove
Silver parcel gilt
Museum no. 332-1880
Sun and Moon
Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells us that God made the sun and moon on the fourth day of creation. They are symbols of the power of light to shine through the darkness, as good will shine over evil.
The sun can also represent the radiance and glory of Christ as seen on this crucifix. In scenes of the Crucifixion, the moon is sometimes shown on the left of the cross and the sun on the right. This could refer to an early church teaching in which the Old Testament (moon) is lit by the New Testament (sun). Together, the sun and moon reflect the sorrow of all creation at Christ's death.
Clothed with the Sun
In Revelation, the final book in the New Testament, St John describes his vision of 'a woman robed with the sun'. This was often taken to represent the Virgin Mary.
In Revelation, St John also describes his vision of the Virgin Mary with the moon beneath her feet. The crescent moon was a traditional symbol of chastity.
Crucifix with the rays of the sun
1600 - 1650
Museum no. 98-1864
Stained glass panel showing the Virgin 'clothed with the sun'
Virgin and Child
Museum no. 9057-1863
Stained glass panel showing the Virgin Mary on a crescent moon
The Virgin and Child
About 1505 - 1510
Museum no. C.353-1937