Life as a Christian, as with any other Theology, is shown through the way a life is lived. This necessarily includes not just the practices that we explored in previous sections, it is shown in the art that is shared and the stories that are told. These things grow in significance and meaning as time compresses and crystallizes the thoughts and ideas associated with them. This page is a mere overview of the most famous symbols, art, and literature born from the Christian tradition.
Christianity has a history of rich symbolism and imagery, this is reflected in the large amount of Symbols that are used widely across the Christian world. Below are just a select few, their origins and meaning.
- Cross and Crucifix: Undoubtedly the most prevalent of Christian Symbols. The Cross represents the crucifixion of Jesus. The Crucifix is a cross which features Jesus’ body on the Cross. This symbol has a history dating back to the earliest Christian communities. It symbolises the sacrifice that Jesus made, and in that also points to the Love that God has for Creation.
- Alpha and Omega: Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek Alphabet. This comes from a direct quotation of Jesus where he says that he is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
- Fish: This symbol arose from a time of persecution of Christians. It is actually an acrostic. The Greek for Fish is ἰχθύς, the Greek letters that make it up become a code for a central declaration of Christianity. “Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ”, (Iēsous Christos Theou Huios Sōtēr), meaning, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.
- Symbols of the Four Evangelists:
- Man/Angel – Matthew – The reason for this is the focus in Matthew’s gospel on the Humanity of Jesus. His human ancestry and the significance of the Incarnation.
- Lion – Mark – An animal that symbolises courage and nobility. The reason for this is the focus on the importance of the Resurrection. Lion’s were thought to sleep with their eyes open, this relates directly to Jesus’s courage and conquest of death.
- Bull – Luke – The Bull, a beast of burden, symbolises sacrifice and service. Luke’s gospel is seen to focus on the responsibility and sacrifice that must be taken on by those who follow Christ.
- Eagle – John – The most poetic and abstract of the gospels is rightly represented by the animal that rules the skies. Eagles were thought to be the only animal capable of staring directly into the sun. This reflects the ability of John to look more deeply at the theological significance of what is going on in the gospel narrative.
There are many more symbols, too many to cover here. But, like any tradition, many complex thoughts and ideas are packed into each of these images, and they continue to be touchstones for Christians everywhere.
Paintings, Frescos and drawings, such as the works of Michelangelo or Raphael, are famous for their beauty and sophistication. They are also often steeped in Christian theology. Some depicting scenes from the Biblical narrative, such as the Last Supper. Others explore Christian theology in a more abstract and artistic way, like the Sistine Chapel. These works are historic in their own right. Theology often inspires people to produce works of incredible beauty and significance, Christianity is no exception.
Icons are a fascinating fusion of theology and art, one that is often misunderstood. They represent more than simply Christian artwork. Following on from the idea that God took on physical form, it makes sense to say that God had a face, a face that could be painted. Christian artists, over the years have often been inspired by this idea of being able to capture divinity in a piece of art. This is what an icon is, it is a piece of art that directs the viewer’s gaze, in some small way, onto the face of God.
This is most commonly seen in the many images painted of Jesus. Note that not all images of Jesus are, or even try to be, considered icons. But it also extends to Holy people. Jesus’ mother Mary is a common subject for iconographers. It is also common to see icons of saints. The subject must be a Holy person, because Holy people are those who partake in divinity, and so it is through properly capturing, not their image, but the divinity that they partake in that a piece of work becomes an icon.
The theology that informs this practice is controversial. Especially among Protestant Christianity. The concern comes from the fear of being distracted from God, and worshipping or devoting ourselves to things that are not divine. In other words, the argument is that there is no such thing as an icon, there are only idols. This line of argument has led to numerous points in history where Christians destroyed artworks. The aftermath can still be seen in Churches across Europe.
The Visual arts are also reflected in how Christian places of worship are designed and decorated. This is often done so in a way that reflects Christian beliefs and facilitates worship.
Some of these things are built into the very foundations of Churches. In the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican traditions, churches have been built with the Altar in the East. This is so that when Christians pray in Church, they do so while facing the Holy Land. This obviously has very strong parallels with the practice of prayer in Christianity’s sibling; Islam. Another facet, especially of older churches, that is often overlooked is that the foundations are usually laid so that the Church itself is cross-shaped. This building tradition goes right back to the most ancient of Churches.
Churches are often decorated in a way that is hoped will facilitate worship. Many stained glass windows have become iconic, but their function is more than being beautiful. They are often designed to give a visual representation of the stories and ideas that should be explored in the church’s service.
At the Centre-front of a church is usually the Altar, this is the focus of services, where the priest and choir, if the Church has one, stay during the service. In order to ensure that what they do is heard from the back of the church, there is usually a lot of thought gone into church architecture that produces great acoustics. This leads us to our next point.
Music is a central component of worship for almost all Christians. Lyrics for music and chanting is found in the Psalms of the Bible, which continue to be used as lyrics for songs of praise. Music that entered the world as Christian Worship music has had an outsized influence on all of Modern Music.
Musical styles as diverse as the classical music of Mozart and Bach to Gospel Music and its influence on Soul and Jazz, all can trace roots back to music used in Christian worship. The history is complex and fascinating, too much so for us to be able to go into detail here. Suffice it to say that for many Christians across the world, the music is a major part of their involvement in the worship and community of a Church. Music, throughout Christian history but especially in the past few hundred years in the West, has been not just a way of bringing worshippers together but also an avenue for engagement with the wider societies that Christians are a part of.
Literature and Storytelling
Christian theology has inspired and continues to inspire a plethora of storytelling in numerous forms. This has a long history. Some of the earliest examples of plays in medieval europe were so called ‘Mystery Plays’ these were performances that depicted stories from the Bible.
Stories from the Bible have been constantly revisited in perhaps every form of writing. But Christian literature and storytelling is not limited to repeating the stories from the Bible. Many artists, working in many artforms, explore questions and experiences that are central to Christian theology.
There are some who would want to ring fence some art as explicitly Christian; but, being overly concerned about labels when it comes to art only ever ends up hurting the art. Inspiration itself is a word taken from Christian Theology, meaning to be taken over by the Spirit, to have God work through you. The themes that run throughout Christian Theology, of Love, self-sacrifice, Guilt, Reconciliation and Forgiveness; these are themes that constantly present in art. Against this backdrop, arguing over how a piece of art should be classified, perhaps misses the point.
As has hopefully become clear, the truth that Christians profess can not be reduced to a label, the message has always been communicated through storytelling, like all theology. This continues to be the case in art coming from across the world.
Christianity is one of, if not the most influential Theological traditions the world has seen. Its recent history in the West has been one of presumed decline and increasing irrelevance. But, these assumptions have not come to pass. Christianity is still a growing force across the world, and it is changing as it grows. It may have been spread through European Empire building, but the intellectual center of gravity for the system is increasingly shifting away from the old colonial powers towards the former colonies. Christianity, like the other older theological systems, is not dying out but evolving. The challenge for Christians will undoubtedly be maintaining some sense of unity as it is simultaneously claimed by nationalist and liberal humanists, just as it is navigated and reimagined by populations who are increasingly finding a global voice and identity.
What we have attempted to offer in these pages is a touchstone for Christian Theology; an introduction to an incredibly rich and complex tradition. We hope that it will be of some use both to Christians who are asking questions of their theology, and non-Christians who want to learn more. Do not hesitate to ask us further questions, or make suggestions so that we can continue to update and improve our content. Please feel free to explore our other content to learn more about other theological systems and issues.