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In the middle Ages the scriptures were written in Latin and Greek, languages learned only by the priests. Still, when early Christians, who were mostly illiterate, entered the great cathedrals, they were surrounded by visual imagery that spoke so powerfully to them that they were put in a “sacred way.” In many ways, in religious terms  we today are the illiterates. We can now walk into a church and hear the scripture in our own language, but more than likely we are deaf to the symbolism trumpeting about us. Certainly, with the spire and the high vaulting of the church, there is an initial experience of being lifted upward, but beyond that is an assemblage of symbols that we are increasingly ignorant of. Crosses have become a fashion statement, but what possibly could they symbolize?  What the illiterate peasant would instantly recognize in a range of crosses, colours, flowers, plants and animals, leaves us seeing only the literal.

 Northrop Frye, Canada’s greatest contribution to the world of literary criticism, wrote a book called The Great Code in which he showed that the Bible was the key, or code, to understanding the secular world of literature. Western literature is saturated with allusion to the Bible and ignorance of it leaves the modern reader with considerably less chance of feeling literature’s power.

Great literature requires that we use what William Blake called “double vision” (another of Frye’s books). That is to say, great literature requires that we read symbolically. A symbol is at the heart of metaphorical experience, where “A” is compared to something quite different, “B,” showing a similarity between things normally quite different.  The symbol is the image, that tangible concrete thing, which, when looked at in context, suggests a second level of meaning. Thus, a raven might suggest death, water suggest (symbolize) rebirth or renewal, or a cross-like shape symbolize salvation. With the masters like Conrad or Shakespeare, the image can be very subtly placed and require a discerning reader to recognize it.

Churches may be going, as Philip Larkin noted in Churchgoing, but fortunately, in Amherst , they are still more than museums. They are great storehouses of symbols.



The lily is a symbol of purity and has become a symbol of the Virgin Mary. The Easter lily, a particular variety which blooms in spring from a seemingly lifeless bulb, has become symbolic of Christ's Resurrection.





Wheat is a rich biblical symbol. From Jesus' parables, wheat came to represent believers over against the "weeds" or "tares", which represent unbelievers. Wheat may also be used to represent the bread in Holy Communion and, further, the Body of Christ.



Grapes are symbolic of Holy  Communion and  of the blood shed by Jesus on the cross for the forgiveness of sin. Grapes are also symbolic of the fruitfulness of the Christian life.



The cross (Fleurie)(left) uses the lily to remind us again of the Trinity. This budded trefoil cross (right) both symbolizes the Trinity (Father/Son/Holy Ghost) and the three steps leading up to it symbolize the hill of Calvary , or sometimes Faith Hope and Charity.



Alpha and omega are the  first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.

Rev. 1:8 "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the  Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”



The dove is a  symbol of the Holy Spirit.    It is taken from the story   of Jesus' baptism,  where the Spirit descended on him in  the form of a dove. The three-rayed nimbus around its head identifies the Spirit as a member of the Trinity. A dove shown without the nimbus is a symbol of peace.





The ark of the covenant was the chief artifact of the tabernacle, the place where God dwelt and where his glory shone. It was a wooden box overlaid with gold and covered with a lid, called the "mercy seat," made of solid gold. On top of the lid were two golden angels (cherubim) whose wings extended over it. Inside of the ark were kept the tablets of the law, a pot of manna, and Aaron's staff.

Noah's ark is symbolic of God's judgment on sin and His promise of salvation and provision for His people. It is a powerful Old Testament type of God's promised Savior, Jesus Christ.  In a New Testament context, oil represents the Holy Spirit Who indwells believers and seals them in Christ.

Oil was used in the Old Testament as a sign of consecration to the Lord. It was symbolic of God's call and empowerment of persons for specific tasks.

The harp is recognized as an attribute of King David. It has been used to represent the Psalms and all music and instruments that are used to praise and glorify God.



A sword, portrayed with an open book,  represents the sword of the Spirit, or the word of truth, the gospel.



The Agnus Dei (Latin for "Lamb of God") is rich in significance. John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Red is the colour of Christ’s blood. The white oak leaf is one of the trees believed to provide wood for the cross.


The dogwood is a modern figure of the Passion of Christ. The "legend" has it that the dogwood, which once grew tall and straight, was the source of the wood used for the cross. Jesus had pity on this poor tree used for such an ignoble purpose, and decreed, "Henceforth it shall be slender and bent and twisted and its blossoms shall be in the form of a cross ... two long and two short petals. And in the center of the outer edge of each petal there will be nail prints, brown with rust and stained with red, and in the center of the flower will be a crown of thorns, and all who see it remember ... that it was upon a dogwood tree I was crucified and this tree shall not be mutilated or destroyed, but cherished as a reminder of My death upon the cross."


Hebrews 6:19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain.

The initial letters of the Greek phrase "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" form the Greek word ICHTHUS, which means "fish." This symbol was used by believers in the early days of persecution as a secret sign of their shared faith. One person would draw an arc in the sand, and the other would complete the sign to show his brotherhood in Christ.





This sacred monogram is formed of the first three letters of the Greek word for "Jesus" (IHCOYC). The horizontal line that forms a cross is the sign for an abbreviation.


The quatrefoil is a symbol of the four Evangelists - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. (The trefoil. again, suggests the trinity).

Rose Windows


Thanks to Amherst ’s churches for permission to take these photos.
Thanks to the excellent site of Walter E. Gast whose symbol descriptions were used to make this page. See http://home.att.net/~wegast/symbols/symbols.htm