This past spring my wife (an artist) and I taught an eight week class on Christian symbolism. Trying to get a handle on early church symbols on turned to Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols by Mike Aquilina. It is a fascinating quick tour through the symbols of the very early church. And if you are at all interested in Christian symbolism or the history of the early church I highly recommend it.
Here is the publishers synopsis:
Imagine the dangerous life of a First Century Christian. You’ve embraced your new found faith in Christ but fear the risk of persecution or death at the hands of the pagans living around you. Then a trusted friend tells you about some of Jesus followers who secretly meet. He whispers into your ear, Look for a fish carved into the entrance way to the burial chambers beside the Via Tiburtina. You smile in gratitude.
Comparatively, modern society is awash in those same Christian symbols that kept early Christians safely connected: they appear on churches, bumper stickers, mugs even mints and stuffed animals. Yet, we are often ignorant of the origins of these symbols having lost the urgency of our spiritual ancestors hostile environment.
Noted author Mike Aquilina conducts an intriguing tour of symbols that guided the first four centuries of the Church s existence. He explains how Christians borrowed pagan and Jewish symbols, giving them new, distinctly Christian meanings. Recover the voice and urgency of our spiritual ancestors symbolic language and discover the impact the symbols still have.
Black and white illustrations by Lea Ravotti of artifacts uncovered throughout the Middle East beautifully complement the text, showing the variety of contexts in which they were found and the range of skills displayed in their execution.
Besides the obvious introduction to the basic symbols of the church in its infancy, what the book gives the readers is a great insight into the circumstances and cultural and spiritual perspective of the nascent body of believers. It shows you their focus and their spiritual and psychological needs.
A couple of things that struck me. One, I never really thought about the cross not coming until later in church history. The fish and other Christogrpahs came first and dominated the early church. Also, the early church was focused on Communion and the Eucharist in ways we simply are not today. They seem to have had this holistic view where the bread and wine symbolized both the provision of God in their daily lives but also the spiritual life that he had provided for them.
This tied back into the centrality of the church as a place where nourishment and life was to be found. Believers could not live spiritually without Christ and the church was the place where that connection was made and nurtured. The communion table was a powerful symbol of the relationship of both the believer to Christ and the church to the believer and of the centrality of God in all of life.
In a similar way the church chose symbols that were simple and culturally common and made them spiritual and profound. From the anchor, the lamp and the shepherd to the vine and bread we already mentioned, these symbols were adopted and adapted to bring meaning to everyday things and to point beyond the everyday.
For each chapter Aquilina provides a nice background into the academic and archeological debate, and lists sources at the end, as well as locating the symbol and its meaning into the life of the early church. In this way you get a sense of what historians and archeologists and other experts think and a sense of the meaning and importance of each symbol. He balances this just right so that each chapters is an intriguing introduction; not to dry or too crammed with information.
A lot of the basics most Christians, and non for that matter, will be familiar with (fish, vine, lamb, shepherd, dove, cross, etc.) but there are some that might not be so familiar (The Orant, the Peacock, the phoenix, the Ankh, etc.).
As I said above, I would recommend this to anyone looking for a nice introduction to the symbolism of the early church; particularly those looking to get some basic information before deciding where and how to dig further.
One note for my protestant readers, Aquilina is Catholic and brings that perspective but I don’t think it is problematic in the least. Readers of all denominations and perspectives will enjoy this enlightening and educational book.