Decoding Early Christian Symbols: How to Read Mosaics in Italy

May 23, 2012

If you’re visiting Ravenna or Venice, Palermo or Rome, you’ll come across many spectacular Byzantine and early Christian mosaics. Glittering in the light, these mosaics are as beautiful as ever. They’re also filled with early Christian symbols and imagery. That way, even the illiterate—most of the population back in the 6th or 10th centuries!—still would have been able to “read” these mosaics and understand their meanings.

Not equipped with that same knowledge? Since many symbols occur repeatedly in early Christian art, here’s a cheat sheet to help you “decode” Italy’s early Christian and Byzantine mosaics. Bonus: If you’re visiting any early Christian catacombs, you’ll see a lot of these same symbols there, too. (Note that we won’t go into all the Biblical scenes here… that’s for another day!).

Also, remember that the Byzantine artists liked to make it easy for us by labeling the scenes and people. Even if you don’t read Greek, it’s pretty easy to assume that “Matthus” is “Matthew” and “Iordanes” the River Jordan!

Some of the most popular symbols of the time include:

The 5th-century “Good Shepherd” mosaic at the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna

Shepherd: The idea of the shepherd as a protector and caregiver was around in pagan Rome. Early Christians adopted the idea as a way to depict Christ, whom they saw as the ultimate caregiver over his Christian “flock.” See it at: the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, above (5th c.); the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (6th c.).

Lambs and sheep: Christ is often referred to as the “lamb of God,” and his death is often interpreted as a sacrifice for mankind. So it’s common to see him depicted not just as a shepherd, but as a lamb. It’s often with a halo or on a throne and surrounded by 12 sheep—the apostles. See it at: both the apse and triumphal arch mosaics of Santi Cosma e Damiano in Rome (6th c.); the apse mosaic of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome (9th c.); the apse mosaic of San Clemente in Rome (12th c.).

Lion, ox, eagle and winged man: These are the symbols of the four Evangelists, who wrote the four Gospels of the New Testament. The lion stands for St. Mark, the ox St. Luke, the eagle St. John, and the winged man St. Matthew. See them at: the triumphal arch mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome (12th c.); the interior of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice (11th-12th c.).

Phoenix: Since the phoenix is a mythological bird that rises from its own ashes, it’s a fitting symbol of the Resurrection, when all the dead rise from their graves, bound for Heaven or hell. Early Christian artists thought so, too! See it at: the apse mosaic of Santi Cosma e Damiano in Rome (6th c.); apse mosaic of Santa Prassede in Rome (9th c.).

Grapes and grapevines in the mosaics at the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza, right when pagan art was transitioning into Christian

Grapes and grapevines: Vines were often used in pagan Roman art, representing the harvest of life. Early Christians added other meanings. For them, the vineyard also meant Israel—and therefore Christians, as well as Jews—or referred to the wine of the Eucharist and Christ’s blood. The idea of the baptized being the harvest was helped by Christ’s quote, “I am the true Vine, you are the branches.” See them at: ambulatory mosaics at Santa Costanza in Rome (4th century).

Peacock: Everyone from Aristotle to St. Augustine claimed that a peacock’s flesh didn’t decay after death. So early Christians used the peacock as a symbol of eternal life. See it at: the ambulatory mosaics at Santa Costanza in Rome (4th century).

Palm branch or tree: Palm fronds were a pagan symbol dating back to ancient Greece; the Romans usually used them to symbolize victory. The palm also was associated with life. So, in early Christian iconography, the palm tree represented either paradise, or a “fruit-bearing” Christian life. See it at: apse mosaic of Santa Prassede in Rome (9th c.); apse mosaic of Santa Cecilia in Rome (9th c.); ceiling mosaic of Arian Baptistery in Ravenna (5th c.); the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (6th c.)

Seven candlesticks: These stood for the seven spirits of God. See them at: the triumphal arch mosaics of Santi Cosma e Damiano in Rome (6th c.); apse mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome (12th c.).

Square versus round “halos”: Round halos, which have pagan origins (ancient Romans often showed their gods or heroes with them), characterize saints. A square halo (more properly called a “nimbus”) was used for “eminent” religious people who were still alive when the mosaic was being done—often the patron of the mosaic. See it at: the apse mosaic of Santa Prassede in Rome (9th c.).

Figure holding a church: That’s the patron of the building you’re standing in! The figure will usually be in the corner of a larger image showing Christ and saints. See it at: the apse mosaic of Santa Prassede in Rome (9th c.); apse mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome (12thc.).

See the figure all the way to the left, holding a church? That’s Pope Innocent II (his name appears beneath his feet), and he was the patron who rebuilt the church—and had this mosaic added—in the 12th century!

by Walks of Italy

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11 responses to “Decoding Early Christian Symbols: How to Read Mosaics in Italy”

  1. Great post! Good information engagingly presented. I tweeted to MosaicArtNow followers. I’ll be interested to see what you pick as the Best Byazantine Mosaics!

  2. Thanks for posting this explanation up, it’s been really useful.

  3. Claire says:

    don’t the palm branches have any significance with Palm Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem the week before he was crucified?

    • walksofitaly says:

      Hi Claire,
      There is a connection—but it’s actually a bit more complicated. It’s also more the other way around: People welcomed Jesus with palm branches because of the palm’s symbolism; palm branches didn’t acquire their symbolic meaning, even for Christians (although of course, as you note, that meaning did expand), because people greeted him with palm.

      Long before the New Testament was written, for example, people had certain associations with palm trees and branches. Solomon and Jeremiah call Jericho “the City of Palm Trees” because, for them, the palm symbolized the righteous path. In Babylon, the palm was holy; in ancient Rome, it was the symbol of the god Apollo. Roman soldiers wore palm, and watchers strew palm fronds on the ground, in (military!) triumphal processions. And here’s Leviticus 23:40 in the Old Testament, with God’s command to the Jews at the Feast of Tabernacles: “And you shall take to you on the first day the fruits of the fairest tree, and branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook: And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God.” And even in the New Testament, palm isn’t referred to just as the tree used to greet Jesus (in fact, it’s worth noting that only one of the four gospels describing Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem mentions palm branches; John does, while Mark, Matthew, and Luke simply say people welcomed Jesus with branches), but with other meanings, too. Psalm 92, for example, says, “And the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree.”

      As Andreas Andreopoulos writes in “Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology And Iconography,” “The palm trees… are a symbol early Christians used to denote spiritual excellence, something that refers, among other things, to the Roman symbolism for athletic excellence.”

      Here’s one good overview of the many meanings of the palm branch, described by one church: “Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem when the people strew palm branches in His path and greeted Him with Hosannas (John 12: 12-13) became a liturgical function on Palm Sunday in the 4th century. But already the palm was connected with martyrdom (Apoc 7.9) and was used to decorate grave markers and tombs in the catacombs as a sign of the triumphant death of the martyr. On mosaics and on sarcophagi it usually stands for paradise, and Christ is frequently portrayed amid palms in heaven. So also in early church art, the Lamb of God and the Apostles are depicted amid palms. The palm tree was embossed on ancient Hebrew coins, and the Romans celebrated the conquest of Judea by issuing a new coinage, still retaining the palm tree, but with an added inscription announcing the victory. Since the early days of the Christian Church, the palm blessed at Mass on Palm Sunday is carried home by the faithful as a symbol of Christ’s presence among them. Before Ash Wednesday the blessed palm is burned, and its residue is used in the distribution of ashes as a symbol of penance during Lent.”

      So: Yes, there is a connection. But the symbol’s meaning is actually quite complex and complicated, and doesn’t simply (or even mainly) refer to Jesus entering Jerusalem.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

      • Michelle says:

        This was so helpful! I have been trying to teach my students about symbolism in Early Christian/Byzantine art, and there is so much to learn! I will definitely use this information as a reference!

  4. Mae says:

    Very informative post… Thank you for sharing this with us. Symbols really speak a lot and it is really great to know their meaning. Thanks! 🙂

  5. Thank you so very much.

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