Church, Symbols of
CHURCH, SYMBOLS OF
The images of dwelling, garden, and woman, and their derivatives, are the most widely used symbols of the Church.
Basic Symbols. In the New Testament the image of the Church as a dwelling or building that is also a temple is exemplified in Eph 2.20–22: "You are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the chief corner stone. In him the whole structure is closely fitted together and grows into a temple holy in the Lord, in him you too are being built together into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit." The Church is represented by the larger metaphor of the city of God in Heb 12.22. In this city, which is the eschatological Jerusalem, the tree of life of the Garden or Paradise is found (Rv 22.1–2).
The symbol woman appears in the New Testament under the aspect of bride and of mother. The city is compared to a bride in Rv 21.2: "And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband." The similitude of mother is applied to the heavenly Jerusalem in Gal 4.26. The fusion of these symbols, especially that of bride and groom, begins to take place in the Old Testament
(Isaiah ch. 61–62). The image of the Church as "body" has reference to the system of bridal symbolism; the Church is Christ's Body at the same time that she is His Bride, according to the principle that husband and wife are one flesh (Eph 5.23–32). see church, ii (theolo gy of).
In Christian antiquity these Biblical Church symbols were developed with poetic ingenuity through literary and pictorial images. In Hellenistic art, the vine had symbolized mystic union with a lifegiving deity. As an ornament in synagogues it represented Israel, God's vineyard, according to Is 5.1–7 (the vineyard song), Ez 19.1–14 (allegory of the vine branch), and Ps 79(80).9–19 (restoration of the Lord's vineyard). In the light of passages such as Jn 15.1–17 (Christ as true vine) and Mt 21.33–41 (parable of the vine-dressers), Christian art saw the pre-Christian meaning of this symbol fulfilled in the Church. Related to the vine as Church symbols are the wreath, the fountain, and the tree of life.
Often appearing together with the vine and its related symbols is the figure of a woman in the early Christian attitude of prayer, the "orant." This image may stand for an individual member of the Church (living or departed), especially its most representative member, the Virgin Mary. The main concern, however, is with the use of the image to symbolize the whole concept of the Church. As soon as churches were built they became symbols of the Church as the community of the faithful "so gathered in God's house as to become God's House" (St. Augustine, Patrologia Latina. 43:241). The symbolism of dwelling, garden, and woman was developed extensively in patristic literature. The Church was seen to be foreshadowed by Jerusalem and the Temple, Paradise and the garden of Ct 4.12 (the lover and his garden), and by the various figures of woman in the Bible, especially Mary to whom the Church is "most similar" (St. Augustine, Patrologia Latina 38:1064). The bridal symbolism gave rise to an extensive system of ecclesiology that borrowed ideas from Hellenistic astrology and mysticism and presented the Church as moon (female) receiving light and life from Christ as sun (male).
Other Symbols. The ark as an image of the Church was sanctioned by 1 Pet 3.20, where Baptism is equated with the saving power of Noah's ark. The ship symbol is probably of independent origin, from the Testamentum Nephtali and Lk 5.3, where Christ teaches from the boat. The ark and the ship are sometimes contrasted and sometimes fused in another important system of early ecclesiology through which the cross (as "saving wood" and as mast of Peter's Bark) soon came to stand for the Church. Throughout the Middle Ages, Church symbolism inspired by elaborate allegorical interpretation of the Bible was translated into artistic forms. The development reached its climax in the medieval cathedral, which was conceived as a mirror of the universe in which "all things prefigure Christ and His Church" (Anastasius of Sinai, Patrologia Graeca 89:894).
With the decline of the Middle Ages, Church allegories tended to become fanciful and didactic. For example, the Church was represented as a chariot drawn by the symbols of the Evangelists and by the Fathers of the Church. The symbol "woman" developed into allegorical representations of Mother Church with cross, banner, or crown, often contrasted with the Synagogue personified. A second area of great development was in Madonna pictures. Only in the East did the full meaning of the "orant" survive, especially in the iconography of the Ascension and in the type of Our Lady of the Sign. As God's dwelling, identified through garden symbols with Paradise, and through liturgical references with Jerusalem, Spouse, and Mother, the church building retained its symbolic meaning in the West, even during the centuries when theology lost touch with symbols. Within the framework of 20th-century Church renewal, traditional symbolism has provided a source of new insights into the nature of the Church. Contemporary church architecture, for example, has been affected by a reconsideration of the concept of "the Church incarnate."
Bibliography: Consult pertinent articles in h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienneet de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 1907–53) 15.2:1756–1811. Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser [Stuttgart 1941 (1950)–]. k. kÜnstle, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, 2 v. (Freiburg 1926–28). c. leonardi, Ampelos: Il simbolo della vite nel l'arte pagano e paleocristiana (Rome 1947). w. lowrie, Art in the Early Church (New York 1947), illus. l. ouspensky and w. lossky. The Meaning of Icons, tr. g. e. h. palmer and e. kadloubovski (Boston 1956). r. brunet, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed., m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 4:384–401. r. schwarz, The Church Incarnate: The Sacred Function of Christian Architecture, tr. c. harris (Chicago 1958). j. daniÉlou, From Shadows to Reality: Studies in the Biblical Typology of the Fathers, tr. w. hibberd (Westminster, MD 1960). Primitive Christian Symbols, tr. d. attwater (Baltimore 1964). p.s. minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia 1960). h. rahner, Our Lady and the Church, tr. s. bullough (New York 1961); Symbole der Kirche, Die Ekklesiologie der Väter (Salzburg 1964). y. m. j. congar, The Mystery of the Temple, tr. r. f. trevett (Westminster, MD 1962).