Catholicism explained: catholic
symbols and gestures
The Roman Catholic Church maintains many ancient
traditions. This article explains some of the symbols and
gestures that the church uses in accordance with those
The Roman Catholic Church exi
sts in nearly every country on Earth, ministering to
millions of worshippers worldwide. In addition to the original Latin, the
is served in hundreds of languages. However, even if a Catholic travels to a foreign
country, where he or she is unfamiliar with the language, some gestures and
symbols remain universal. These similarities make the unfamiliar, familiar.
* Symbols *
Every year, on the Wednesday following Palm Sunday, Catholics receive the ashes
the previous year's palms as a blessing, traced into the form of a cross on their
foreheads. These ashes symbolize the dust from which humankind came, and the
dust to which we all shall return, a concept familiar to many people through the
phrased "ashes t
o ashes, dust to dust." By using the ashes of the previous year's
palms, the ashes come to symbolize both the joy of
entry into Jerusalem and
the regret over His sacrifice. Ashes were once a symbol of both penance and
mourning. At the time Christ lived, both were expressed by sitting in dust and ashes,
as well as placing dust and ashes on one's forehead.
The cross is a powerful Christian symbol, not limited to Catholics. It represents the
cross upon which Chris
t died. The cross is present all around the church's interior:
on the altar cloth, in the Stations of the Cross, and even on the priest's vestments.
differs from the cross, in that it depicts the image
of Christ being
crucified, rather than that of the empty cross. The addition of His figure to the empty
cross is intended to emphasize His human nature, which enabled him to suffer
physical pain and death.
Not all crucifixes are identical. Depending on th
e mission of the church, the depiction
of Jesus may evoke various emotions ranging from sorrow, to fear, or to awe.
However, the purpose of the crucifix remains the same: to remind Catholics of the
price Christ paid for humanity's redemption.
holics use incense during important services to symbolize the
congregation rising to heaven. One of the gifts traditionally associated with the Magi
was frankincense. This aromatic resin was part of the traditio
nal incense associated
Temple of Solomon. Frankincense represents the continuity of
faith between the Old and
A monstrance is a kind of vessel i
ntended to display the consecrated Host to the
Catholic faithful. One important part of the Catholic Mass is the Elevation of the
Host. The monstrance "elevates" the Host when the priest is unable to do so.
There are two kinds of monstrance. The one most
Catholics are familiar with is that
which is seen inside the church. This type of monstrance is usually displayed on an
altar, or is stored in a tabernacle. The monstrance is usually gold
Most often, the monstrance has a sun
nce, topped by a cross. The
Catechism of 1913 recommended this appearance, because the monstrance
represents the light of Christ, the "sun of righteousness."
Symbolism exists not just in these things, but also in the written word of the church,
e parables of the New Testament are symbolic, rather than literal, teaching
lessons through the actions of the people who move through them. Just as the
sharing of communion is symbolic of the Last Supper, but is only part of the Mass,
none of the symbols
are intended to be viewed or used alone, but make up the
whole of the Catholic experience.
* Gestures *
Catholics often bow or kneel during prayer. At times, they bow as they pass the altar
or pray before a painting or statue. Neither the bow nor
the prayer is symbolic of
worshipping the structure, the painting, or the statue. Rather, the bow is a display of
respect for what the altar represents, or for the person represented by the image.
The definition of genuflection is literally
, 'to bend the knee.' In the Catholic Church,
genuflection is an act of reverence, a sort of minor prostration in which the person
touches the floor with the right knee while bending the left knee. In addition, the
Catholic makes the sign of the cross whil
e genuflecting. Genuflection is a relatively
new form of devotion, added to the church practices during the Middle Ages. Formal
recognition of genuflection did not come until 1502, although it was some time
before priests were expected to genuflect as part
of the Consecration.
Sign of the cross
There are actually three signs of the cross in the Catholic Church. All of them
represent the same thing, which is the Cross that Jesus died upon.
The first sign of the cross is that which most people are famili
ar with, the gesture
with which the Catholic faithful cross themselves. The symbolism of this gesture is
twofold: first, the sign of the cross asserts the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity,
and second, it affirms the doctrine of humanity's redemption
sacrifice. Catholics start the gesture their foreheads (In nominee Patris), touch their
chests (et Filii), and then touch the left shoulder followed by the right (et Spiritus
Sancti). This gesture is seen many times during Mass and in priv
ate prayer. It may
have come from medieval practices, symbolizing Jesus' coming to earth from
Heaven, His descent into Hell (the left being associated with evil) and Ascending to
sit at the right side of God, the Father.
The second sign of the cross is th
at which the priest uses to bless the congregation.
This gesture is also large, and is inscribed in the air in the direction of the
congregation. The priest makes this gesture several times during Mass and during
other rituals of the church.
e is the small sign of the cross, which the priest or deacon will inscribe
on the book of the
using his thumb before it is opened and read, after which
he repeats the gesture on his forehead, lips, and breast. The Catho
also makes this triple gesture immediately before the reading of the Gospel.
Using Holy Water Entering and Leaving the Church
Catholics bless themselves with holy water while entering a church. Not only does
this gesture contain the symb
olism of signing themselves with the cross, it also is an
act of symbolic purification. This practice was known to be in common use during the
second century and may go back to the Jewish rite of purifying oneself before
entering the Temple.
Holy water is
blessed water, containing a measure of salt. The salt itself has a
symbolic meaning: water purifies and salt preserves from decay. The church
combines them, to preserve the faithful from relapsing into sin after having their sins
washed away. Catholic pri
ests use a solemn prayer to ask protection from the
powers of darkness to bless holy water. At times, water is blessed for certain
purposes, such as baptism. Holy water is used to bless the congregation (the
Asperges, or "sprinkling") on Sunday, and to ano
int the recipient during the
Sacrament of the Sick.
The Catholic faith is long
standing and complex. Although these are some of the
symbols and gestures, almost every action made or item used in the faith has deep
symbolic meaning. Most
have resources to answer any questions
you might have and welcome visitors to their services.
The Importance of Catholic Symbols
content of this section of the website provides information on Catholic Symbols. The
meanings, origins and ancient traditions surrounding Catholic Symbols date back to times
when the majority of ordinary people were not able to read or write and printing
unknown. When Christian religious ceremonies were conducted entirely in Latin. Foreign or
written words were therefore inappropriate for conveying the Christian message to the
majorities. However the Catholic Symbols which were adopted enabled people,
to the same Catholic Christian religion, could understand the meaning of a symbol regardless
of understanding the written word or whatever country they were in. The use of Catholic
Symbols made it possible for everyone to understand the figures
and the messages which
were portrayed in Christian art or in the images and objects included on stained glass
windows or the actual architecture of Catholic Churches.
Significance and Representations
Catholic Symbols use signs and em
blems to teach and present various concepts of the
Christian religion. They also add elements of mysticism to the Catholic Christian religion.
Catholic Symbols or, symbolism, provides clear graphic illustrations which represent people,
saints and items of
religious significance. Understanding the significance of Catholic
Symbols and symbolism enables a fuller understanding of Christian Art and Architecture and
what the symbols of faith represent in the Catholic religion.
Catholic and Christian Symbolism in
the Medieval Bestiary
A Bestiary was a medieval book (usually illustrated) with allegorical descriptions of real and
fabled animals. These descriptions, which included a description of various birds and animals
plants, were often full of Christian and Catholic symbols and symbolism and
contained a moral or religious lesson or allegory.
MM Del Rosario
Since the earliest times, the concept of symbolism has appeared in every human culture, social
structure and religious system. Signs and symbols play a vital role in all of the world's religions
as object on wh
ich thoughts and prayers can be focused.
Symbols point a way through the spiritual world, they act as badges of faith, teaching tools and
aids on the journey towards an understanding of complex philosophies.
See all 9 photos
The crucifix is a Cross with the figure of the body of Jesus Christ
attached to it. This is a very common Catholic symbol. it is placed on
or above the altar where the Eucharist is celebrated.
A crucifix of
ten has the letters INRI written across the top.
These letters are short for a Latin phrase which translates as
Nazareth, King of the Jews."
These are the words in which Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of
Judea ordered to be written over the
cross in which Jesus Christ was
A crucifix is a symbol of sacrifice.
ALPHA AND OMEGA
These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.
In the book of revelation 22:13, Christ refers himself as the Alpha
and the Omega, that is the f
irst and the last.
Christ is the beginning and the end of all creation. The Alpha and
Omega symbols are used at various times in the Church liturgical
The most famous and widespread Christian symbol is the
Cross. It is found wherever
there is a Christian presence.
In Roman times, the Cross was seen as an instrument of
torture and public humiliation. Criminals were put to death
For Christians however, the Cross became a symbol not
only of Jesus' death but also of his Resurrect
The Sacred Heart is a symbol of the love of Jesus for all of humanity.
The heart is a symbol of love. When depicted as the Sacred Heart it is
shown as pierced with a cross and thorns twisted around it.
This shows the depth of Je
sus love. He was prepared to suffer and die
for all people. His love is eternal.
IHS AND CHI
often appear on liturgical items, building plaques and
gravestones and sacred vessels.
is a shortened form of the Greek
word for Je
are often used as another symbol for
first two letters of Christ's name in Greek are
. In the Greek
Also known as the CHi
RHO cross, the letters are usually inscribed one
ver the other sometimes enclosed within a circle becoming both a
cosmic and a solar symbol.
One of the oldest Christian symbols was the fish. It
was used by Christians to identify themselves,
often in times of persecution. It is often found i
Roman catacombs, secret meeting place when the
Christians were persecuted by the Romans for
It is based on the acrostic, of the initial letters of the
Greek words for Jesus Christ. To understand this
symbol you need to know what is the
The Greek word for fish is
This is an
acronym for Jesus.
this translates as
God , Saviour
Christ also referred to his apostles as "Fishers of
Men" while the early
Christian fathers called the
faithful pisculi (fish).
The dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. When Christ was baptised by
John the Baptist, a dove descended on him (Matthew 3:16 and Mark
The dove is sometimes depicted with an olive
branch in its mouth, as a symbol of peace. It also
symbolises God's grace.
Do you remember Noah's story, God had sent a great flood and after the rain stopped, Noah
sent out a dove to search for dry land, it returned carrying an olive brach from the Mount
Olives, a symbol of God's forgiveness.
One of the most important symbols of Christ is the Lamb. Christ as the
Lamb of God is mentioned in John 1:35
36 and revelation 5:6
14 and in
the words of the Mass.
The whiteness of the Lamb symboli
ses innocence and purity. Lambs
are often associated with s
crifice in the Old Testament. Christ, the
sacrificial lamb, died for the sins of humanity.
The lamb is sometimes portrayed with a flag, symbolic of Christ's victory
over death in his Resurrection
FLEUR DE LIS
This is one example of a s
ymbol of Mary. The whiteness an
d beauty of the lily is a symbolic of
the purity of Mary Immaculate.
The lily is often used to decorate shrines,
chapels or grottos dedicated to Mary.
Symbolism of Colo
The Definition and Meaning of the Symbolism of Colours as a Christian
Catholic Christian symbolism in art provides a clear graphic illustration
people or items of religious significance. What is the definition and the meaning of the
Symbolism of Colours? The Symbolism of Colours
represent many different items of sacred
significance. The meaning of the different colours is highly
significant and are detailed as
White symbolizes Purity, virginity, innocence and virtue. It also symbolises holiness and is
the Christian colour for all high Holy Days of the Church Year, especially the seasons of
Christmas and Easter
lours symbolize renewal, hope, light and purity. Yellow is the Christian colour for
the season of Easter when used with white. When taken as an off
white colour symbolizes
degradation or cowardice
Orange colours symbolize courage, endurance and strength r
epresenting fire and flame
Green colours symbolize nature, fertility, hope and bountifulness. Green symbolizes freedom
Red colours symbolize the Holy Spirit and is the colour of Pentecost. Red also represents fire
and is associated with po
wer and importance. Crimson red also symbolizes the presence of
God and the blood of martyrs. It is the Christian liturgical colour for Pentecost and represents
atonement and humility
Black colours symbolize death, fear and ignorance and was also used to
and power. The colour black is associated with Good Friday.
Brown colours symbolize the earth, poverty and humility and closely associated with
Blue colours symbolize heavenly grace. The Virgin Mary is often depicted wear
clothing. Blue also represents hope, good health and the state of servitude
Purple colours are always associated with Royalty; Purple togas were worn by the powerful
Roman Emperors. The symbolic meaning of the colour purple was for penitence and
mourning and is the liturgical colour for the seasons of Lent and Advent
The definition and the meaning of Symbols or Icon in early religious art forms. A Catholic
sign or icon, such as the Symbolism of Colours are used to represent
abstract ideas or
a picture that represents an idea. A religious icon, such as a Colour, is an image or
symbolic representation with sacred significance. The meanings, origins and ancient
traditions surrounding Christian symbols date back to ear
ly times when the majority of
ordinary people were not able to read or write and printing was unknown. Many were
'borrowed' or drawn from early pre
Signs and Symbols
: What is the Catholic perspective on the use of signs and
: Signs and symbols are creatures, either created directly by God or designed by men using
natural shapes and designs, which mean or communicate something more than their own existence. Because
man is an intimate union of body and sp
irit, making and using signs and symbols is consistent with his being.
Signs and symbols are good in themselves.
: Humans make and use symbols and signs because we are a unity of body and spirit. We are not,
nor were we ever intended to be,
purely intellectual or spiritual beings. C. S. Lewis often said, “God likes matter.
He invented it.” This is true. In Genesis we read that God created the earth and everything in it, and called it
“very good” (Gen. 1:1, 31). When God created man, He for
med him out of earth (dust, slime) and breathed life
into him (Gen. 2:7). We communicate, learn, and understand not by “mental telepathy” but through our senses
and physical media, like pictures and books, speech and words, tastes and smells, gestures and
and textures. Everyone makes and uses symbols and signs because they suit our human nature. The
philosopher may try to convey an abstract, intellectual concept, but he does it with paper, ink, and language.
Symbols and signs surround us.
They are important to every culture. How many times this month did you or
someone you know nod, shake or hold hands, bow, smile or frown, point, dress up, give a gift, open a door for
someone, see or wear a wedding band, applaud, or kiss or hug someone? Al
l of these actions are physical or
bodily, but they all represent something more: a meaning that is more than physical. Some signs are rather
arbitrary, like the fact that United States stop signs are octagonal. They might have been square. Other signs
emble what they signify in some way, like a portrait of a president on a coin or the color red signifying blood.
Either way, signs and symbols are inescapable.
Because there are a limited number of natural signs and symbols, different cultures or groups
often use the same symbol to mean different things. For example, in some ancient, pagan cultures, the
pomegranate symbolized fertility. In Catholic art, the pomegranate symbolizes the Church. The use of the
pomegranate by pagans doesn’t make the
pomegranate “evil,” nor does it imply the Catholic Church is pagan. It
is important to understand the context of a symbol’s use and the meaning intended by the user, or the
interpretation of the symbol will be incorrect.
Objects and Images
As the list
of examples above shows, many different kinds of things can be used as signs or symbols. The
first kind most people think of are touchable or visible things like objects and images. Objects that serve as
common American symbols include the Statue of Liber
ty, bald eagles, and American flags. There are also
common American images, like portraits of Washington and Lincoln, pictures of “Uncle Sam,” Democratic
donkeys and Republican elephants, or art incorporating the colors red, white, blue, and stars and stri
United States citizens see these commonly understood objects and images, they immediately think of the United
States of America. Sometimes these symbols inspire patriotism and confidence, sometimes disappointment or
disgust, but almost all Americ
ans know what they are and what they represent. They are part of the American
“visual vocabulary.” These objects and images do not necessarily mean the same thing to people from other
The Catholic Church also uses meaningful objects and images
. The cross and the crucifix are probably the
most common, representing the self
sacrifice of Jesus Christ for all men, and the kind of love He calls us to have
for others. Another common symbolic object is the altar. It reminds us of the sacrificial altar
s of the Old
Testament and their fulfillment in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Its symbolism becomes most evident when
Jesus is offered in the perpetual sacrifice of the Mass. Vestment and altar linen colors signify different attitudes
of prayer ass
ociated with the Church’s liturgical seasons (penitential, joyful, hopeful, etc.). Objects and images
like these are part of the Catholic Church’s “visual vocabulary.” Catholics who are “fluent” in this visual language
can understand more fully the Gospel
the Church seeks to communicate.
Words and Gestures
Sometimes signs and symbols are a little more subtle, like words and gestures. Although many people don’t
stop to think about it, words themselves are signs and symbols which represent objects, ideas,
and other realities
and communicate them to others who know the language. Words have definitions, but they can also carry
specific connotations. For example, both “fight” and “contest” express competition, but the connotations of “fight”
are usually more
extreme than “contest.” A contest can be friendly, fights are often rather unfriendly. “Home,” as
another example, usually has warmer and cozier connotations than just “habitat.” Both the definitions and
connotations of words help a person to express his i
deas to others. Some words are rather arbitrary, but some
sound a little like what they represent, like “bang!” and “splash.” Gestures, with or without words, can also
communicate. The question “what do you mean?” is understood very differently when you
shake your fist at the
same time. Shaking your fist without any words, or giving someone a hug without any words, can sometimes
communicate your meaning just as well as or better than words. Words and gestures can be powerful signs and
olic Church, knowing how universal and potent words and gestures are, also makes use of these
signs and symbols. All Catholics, for example, make the sign of the cross in the name of the Father, Son, and
Holy Spirit. The words combined with the gesture of
crossing oneself call to mind the Trinity, the Incarnation and
passion of Christ, and our baptism. The gesture incorporates the head, the heart, and the shoulders, which are
associated with the intellect, the will, and physical action respectively. It is a
lso an invocation of God in prayer.
The simple but profound sign of the cross is a summary of the Christian faith intended to reorient us to God.
The Nicene Creed, also known as the Symbol of Faith (cf. Catechism, nos. 185
197), summarizes and
, in human words, Catholic beliefs about the inner life of the Trinity and God’s saving works in the
world. This profession of faith, which we all share in common, further signifies our Catholic unity in faith and
morals. The Creed is sometimes called a “t
reasure” and “guardian” of the Catholic faith. Some Catholic gestures
communicate meaning even without words, like sprinkling people or objects with holy water and the kiss of
peace. Sprinkling people or objects with holy water is a gesture signifying that
blessings are being given, or that
the sprinkled things are being devoted to God. The kiss of peace is a gesture signifying our unity through charity.
When we understand the meanings behind Catholic words and gestures, we can participate more fully in the
of the Church.
Places and Times
Though we hardly stop to think about it, unless we happen to be tourists at the time, places can be very
significant too. The monarchy of the United Kingdom itself serves a mostly symbolic purpose in modern times,
yet the British cannot help but feel that Buckingham Palace represents, for better or worse, their homeland and
way of life. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier symbolizes our gratitude to those patriots whose names we cannot
honor but who nevertheless gave th
eir lives for the country. Some significant places are closer to home
Many people have separate “living rooms” and “family rooms” for different purposes. The living room is often
reserved, like the front door, for more formal occasions, while th
e family room and back door are open to more
casual or intimate occasions. Though the use of rooms varies widely, most people do attach some significance to
Catholics also have significant places. Rome is a great example. Before and even som
e time after the
advent of Christ, Rome was the seat of a powerful empire, which was, moreover, hostile to the faith. Christians
considered it a phenomenal victory to have an established Church there, planted by Peter and Paul. To this day,
the presence of
the Vatican City alongside the city of Rome shows that Christianity has outlived that hostile
empire, just as it will outlive all other empires. As the See of Peter and his successors, it is also a location
representing Catholic unity.
There are also si
gnificant Catholic places “closer to home.” Many people no longer realize that different
parts of a church building represent different things. As you pass through the front doors, you enter a room
known as the narthex or vestibule. This part of the church
building traditionally represents the times of the Old
Testament patriarchs and prophets, who anticipated the coming of Christ. The holy water and baptismal fonts are
usually located in the narthex or just inside the next set of doors. As Baptism opens th
e gates of heaven for us
(cf. Jn. 3:5) and introduces the convert to Christianity, the reminder of this sacrament (blessing oneself with holy
water) enables you to enter the nave, the room where Christians assemble to worship, which represents
anity on earth. The nave faces the sanctuary, which is an elevated part of the church. The
sanctuary is often set apart from the nave by an altar rail or an iconostasis, and contains the altar. This part of
the room represents heaven, to which Christians o
n earth look. Because of this significance, only the ordained,
who act in persona Christi, could traditionally move freely in and out of the sanctuary, especially during the
Liturgy. Those who seek to understand the significance of church architecture a
re better prepared to actively
participate in the Divine Liturgy. The signs and symbols surrounding us communicate volumes of meaning each
time we attend, and enable us to worship God with every part of our being.
In addition to matter, time is anothe
r dimension to human existence. When God created the heavens and
the earth, He also created time. Throughout history, special times have also been set aside and given symbolic
significance. People all over the world mark anniversaries of births, deaths, or
weddings; anniversaries of a
nation’s founding, communities, organizations, or buildings; sunrises and dusks; new years and seasonal cycles;
etc. Some times are naturally significant, like harvests and the lengthening and shortening of days throughout the
year. Other special times, like the time of day people have a large meal, may be somewhat arbitrary. The
keeping of special times or routines, and their use to communicate important meanings, is universal to mankind,
and it is appropriate because humans a
re temporal creatures.
The Catholic Church also recognizes the universal importance of significant times. As explained by Pope
John Paul II, “In Christianity time has a fundamental importance. Within the dimension of time the world was
created; within it
the history of salvation unfolds, finding its culmination in the ‘fullness of time’ of the Incarnation,
and its goal in the glorious return of the Son of God at the end of time” (Tertio Millenio Adveniente 10). Because
of this, the Church gives meaning to
particular times. The best example is the liturgical calendar. The liturgical
year is divided into several seasons, such as Advent, Christmas, and Lent, to call our minds and hearts to
important events in the life of Jesus and His Church. In many cases, t
he liturgical seasons correspond in some
way to the natural seasons, showing how the supernatural order fulfills the natural order. There are feasts or
fasts nearly every day to direct us in different attitudes of prayer, such as joy and thanksgiving or
hope. Important Catholic times and events, through which we participate in the events of Jesus’ life, announce
that we are members of His Body, that only in Him may we be saved. Through the Church’s calendar, when we
understand its significance
, we see that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
Physical and temporal signs and symbols, like the ones mentioned above, are good, because they arise
from and are consistent with the way God made us. Just as we are “phy
sical, but more than physical” or
“temporal, but more than temporal,” so are our symbols.
Some Christian symbols are well known. The fish, for example, is a symbol of Christian belief about Jesus
a kind of “miniature creed.” This symbol arose from
the fact that the Greek initials for “Jesus Christ,
God’s Son, Savior” spell “fish” (icqus) in Greek. Other well
known Christian symbols are listed above. Some
Christian symbols are a little more obscure. Peacocks, for example, often symbolize Jesus’ tran
symbolizes enduring faith. If you don’t know the meaning of a particular sign or symbol, there are many places to
find out, including some of the books listed below.
As Christians, we are supposed to devote our whole lives to God, in Who
se image we are made and
remade. One way we devote ourselves and respect His order of creation and redemption is by giving things and
events in our lives, or recognizing in them, religious meanings or significance. When we do this, we are really
His Own actions. God, for example, hallowed the seventh day (Gen. 2:3) and made the lamb a symbol
of Christ’s sacrifice (Ex. 12, Jn. 1:29). The Church and her members follow His example by making and keeping
feasts and fasts, and by blessing things or assi
gning them religious significance. The sacraments, liturgies, and
sacramentals of the Church are themselves signs and symbols of our faith. Because they are what they signify,
the sacraments have a place of honor as the ordinary means by which we receive t
he grace of salvation (cf.
Catechism, nos. 1210, 1212). Similarly, sacramentals are the ordinary means by which we sanctify the world
from within (cf. Catechism, no. 1670). By giving things and events religious significance and recognizing the
anings they communicate, we devote those things and ourselves to the worship of God. We give
back to Him the things He gives us (cf. Catechism, no. 358).