Thursday, May 26, 2011

Catholic Symbols Explained

Symbols are everywhere in Catholicism and some had asked for this so I thought I'd run through some of them. If you have other ideas for other symbols or phrases, email them or put them in the comment box and we'll try and figure them out.

Fleur-de-Lis: The Fleur-de-Lis came to represent two things intertwined - the French Monarchy, each of the three leaves representing the different classes of French society under their monarchy, and the image also has a Marian background. "Lis" means Lilly, a flower which has long been identified with purity. The Fleur-de-Lis is also trinitarian with its three leaves as well. Because the French Monarchy has always been tied to the Catholic Church (both were simultaneously overthrown during the French Revolution) this image has appeared in many secular and Catholic places that take their heritage from the French.

The white background and red cross featured in many resurrection pieces is representative of Christ's mingling of humanity and divinity just as water and wine mingle together during Mass. White is also emblematic of Christ's purity while red has long been the color of the martyrs (Christ having been one himself). The image is also tied strongly to the crusades, and many soldiers wore white tunics with the red cross, and the image also appears on shields in much of the artwork surrounding the Crusades. Some seem to believe that the banner appears in resurrection art because it was first ACTUALLY used in the Crusades, while others say the crusaders used the design because it first appeared in paintings. One source notes that: "Pope Eugenius gave them the right to wear a scarlet cross over their hearts, so that the sign would serve triumphantly as a shield and they would never turn away in the face of the infidels': the red blood of the martyr was superimposed on the white of the chaste." (Melville, La Vie des Templiers, p. 92.)

Chi Rho - in 313, as "barbarians" were preparing to sack Rome (most historians agree that the Romans were much more "barbaric"). The pagan emperor Constantine saw a vision in which Christ showed Constantine the Chi Rho - the first two letters of Christ's name in Greek (XRISTOS), and Christ told Constantine "in this sign you will be victorious." Constantine had his soldiers paint the above symbol on their shields and the Romans proceeded to successfully defend their city in a miraculous military victory. Constantine promptly consecrated the realm to Christ and the Church, although Constantine himself, as was popular at the time, wasn't officially baptized until he was on his death bed (in order to prevent the chance of post-baptismal sins condemning a person to Hell).

"IHS" - A couple of different possibilities for this symbol are out there. The most popular is that I, H, and S are an abbreviation of the Latin phrase that Christ spoke to Constantine - "In Hoc Signo Vinces" (In = in, hoc = this, signo = sign, vinces = you will win). Others attribute it to the first three letters of "Jesus" in Greek - IHSUS. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that abbreviated monograms were quite common throughout the world of the early Church.


  1. Thank you, Father! Perhaps you could address certain symbols used in artistic representations of the saints and how to identify saints based on those symbols? For instance, St. Clare's monstrance, St. Peregrine's dog, St. Patrick's shamrock, etc. It's always fun amazing non-Catholics by correctly identifying a picture before reading the label. :)

  2. please consider doing an ongoing series of this topic. I found this very interesting...You are in your prayers my fellow "Glimmer Triplet"

  3. However, I think it is important to note that the fleur de lis is also known for its history of being marked on French prostitutes.

  4. Fr. John, Great to find your work and faith on the internet. Keep up the Great work. Fr. Willy Raymond, CSC, Family Theater Productions, Hollywood, CA, Home of "The Family that prays together stays together, Founded by Father Patrick Peyton, CSC,
    Feb. 13th 1947, God bless you, your miniistry as priest and your good work in the media.

  5. It's a new risk overcoming for me. I did not expect to find such kind of blog here on the net. It is true that hidden meanings are covered by symbolism. Through the ages Catholics uses different symbols to express their unexpressed thoughts, and I think even communion veils had its meaning to Catholic belief.

  6. Father,
    Any relationship between Chi Rho and Cairo of which you are aware?
    Thank you.

  7. Father - This is a great post! Last year when I was in the high school theology classroom in Austin, TX, I used Symbols of the Faith as bellwork for my students. It was a good way to get them working before we started the actual lesson of the day. They learned a lot as did I. Often on exams they would find the symbols as extra credit questions.

    Thank you!

  8. I have a question on a similar subject. The initials after a priest's name denotes what order they belong to, however, never have I found a resource so that I can look up the ones I do not know. Can you point me in the right direction?