Christian Symbolism: Words, Letters and Symbols
The cross is the symbol of Christ's suffering at the hands of the Roman authorities, his death on the cross and his sacrifice. It is the most important Christian symbol and the identifying sign of the faith. Different forms of the cross sometimes have specific meanings
Crucifixion was a cruel and shameful form of public execution, reserved for common criminals, yet afterwards Christ rose from the dead to eternal life. The cross, especially the plain cross, is therefore a symbol for the Christian victory over sin and death. Many saints also have the plain cross as their symbol.
This cross has two bars. The smaller one represents the board that the Roman executioners sometimes nailed above a crucified man to record his crime. The board on Christ's cross read 'Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews'.
In the Catholic church the patriarchal cross is used by only three specially high-ranking archbishops, known as patriarchs.
The cross is sometimes shown as a tree. This tradition comes from the belief that the tree used to make the cross of Christ was an off-shoot of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, Adam and Eve eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, even though God forbids them to do so. The sins of Adam and Eve symbolise the sins of all men and women, which are redeemed by Christ's sacrifice.
Crown for a statue of the Virgin Mary with a plain cross
Copper-gilt, pierced, set with enamelled silver bosses, enamelled gold rosettes and glass pastes
Museum no. 145-1882
Reliquary in the form of a patriarchal cross
Museum no. M.388-1956
Crowns and Halos
A halo is a sign of a person's holy nature. A crown is a symbol of honour and victory, used in both worldly and religious settings. It is also a sign of martyrdom, that a person has died for the Christian faith.
As a symbol of the victory over sin and death, the crown often signifies a martyr. St Ursula, who is said to have died in a massacre with her eleven thousand companions, wears a jewelled golden crown. Crowns can be shown as a plain band, a simple wreath of flowers or a magnificent circle of gold and jewels. The Virgin Mary often wears a crown of honour in her role as the Queen of Heaven.
Crown of Thorns
The crown of thorns is a symbol of Christ's Crucifixion and suffering. Before nailing him to the cross, the Roman soldiers placed a crown of thorns on Christ's head. This was to mock him in public as King of the Jews. It was a parody of the crown of laurel leaves that the emperor wore at festivals.
Halos can be a small band of light, a circle of rays or a vast golden disc. They help to identify the holy people in an image. A person who is still living, for example a pope or emperor, might wear a square halo. Originally associated with the sun god Apollo, the halo appeared in images of the Roman emperor. Later it was used for angels, saints and anyone else that Christians regarded as specially holy.
Stained glass showing St Ursula with a crown
Saint Ursula and the virgin martyrs
Panel of clear and coloured glass with painted details and yellow (silver) stain
Museum no. C.73-1919
Stained glass panel showing Christ crowned with thorns
Crowing of Christ with thorns
Museum no. 1255-1855
Instruments of Christ's Suffering
The instruments of Christ's suffering, also known as the 'Instruments of the Passion', recall the events that took place in the last week of Christ's life. The most familiar of these are the cross on which Christ died and the crown of thorns that was placed on his head to mock him as 'King of the Jews'. They represent not only his suffering, but also his victory over death.
Pillar and Whip
It was standard practice in Roman times to whip a criminal before nailing him to the cross. Stained glass panels sometimes show Christ tied to a pillar while two soldiers beat him with knotted whips. The pillar and whip are, therefore, symbols of Christ's suffering.
Nails, Hammer, Ladder and Pincers
These are all symbols linked to Christ's death on the cross. The Roman soldiers used nails to fasten down his hands and feet, and a hammer to knock in the nails. After his death, Jesus's followers placed a ladder against the cross. They removed the nails with pincers and took down his body.
Sponge, Spear and Dice
While he was still on the cross, the soldiers shared out Christ's clothes and threw dice for his tunic. They soaked a sponge in sour wine and offered it to him to drink. Then, after his death, they pierced his side with a spear. Blood and water flowed from the wound, and later they came to symbolise the washing away of sin.
Stained glass panel showing Christ being whipped
Flagellation of Christ
Museum no. 5460-1858
Chalice with the ladder and other symbols on the foot
The Mount Keefe Chalice
Museum no. M.31-1929
Words and Letters
Various words and letters are used as reminders of key aspects of Christian teaching. Some are symbols of Christ. Others are references to events and phrases in the Bible. The sacred words are always in Greek and Latin, languages of the Christian church.
IHS represents the name of Jesus. Originally the letters came from a contraction of his name in Greek. Later, they became linked to the special devotion to his holy name. Over time, IHS has taken on different meanings. For example, it is also associated with the first letters of the Latin phrase 'Iesus Hominum Salvator' (Jesus, Saviour of Men).
These are the four initial letters of the Latin words 'Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum' (Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews). During the Crucifixion, these words were written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin on a board nailed to the cross. In reference to this, INRI is sometimes shown on the bar above Christ crucified.
Ecce Agnus Dei
This is Latin for 'Behold the Lamb of God'. It was a Jewish custom to sacrifice lambs, and when John the Baptist first saw Jesus he used these words in reference to Christ's later sacrifice on the cross. The words are often shown written on a scroll.
Chalice with INRI on the cross
Silver-gilt, raised, engraved
Museum no. M.1A-1986
Detail from a stained glass panel. The banner linking St John and the Virgin bears the words 'Ecce Agnus Dei'
Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Dorothy
Upper Rhine, Germany
Clear and coloured glass with painted details and yellow (silver) stain
Museum no. 1184-1864