Religious Symbols

The Crucifix
Christ Added to the Cross

The practice of placing the figure of Jesus on the cross began near the end of the sixth century, but even then, no artist dared to show him in his pain and humiliation. At first Jesus wore a long royal tunic, sometimes a golden regal crown, and only his hands and feet were bare to show in a stylized fashion the nails that pinned him to the wood. 

The image was one of triumph. Jesus, whose kingdom would come, reigned open-eyed and smiling.

The image of a suffering Christ on a cross, the crucifix used by many Christians today, first appeared in the tenth century. It was not popular and was condemned by the pope as blasphemy.

Over the next three hundred years, artists began putting a suffering Jesus on the cross, gradually deepening his hand wounds, adding a torturous crown of thorns, and liberal drippings of blood. Jesus’ long tunic shrank in time to a skimpy loincloth, further revealing his body’s torment.

(From Sacred Origins of Profound Things by Charles Panati)



 Star of David

The familiar six-pointed star known in Hebrew as MAGEN David, literally, "Shield of David" - the paramount symbol of Judaism - has been used explicitly in this way for only a few hundred years. Mystery surrounds the origin of the Star of David.

Historians concur that the symbol almost certainly had nothing to do with the tenth century BCE reign of King David. A six-sided star appears in the writings and practices of magicians of Solomon’s day. The star’s earliest attested Jewish use, but not adoption for the faith, was a seventh century BCE seal of one Joshua ben Asayahu of Sidon. It was found on a frieze in a second century CE Galilean synagogue, alongside a swastika cross, which then had overtones of paganism, not persecution.

The star became a Passover seder symbol around 1770, and in 1882, the Rothschild banking family adopted the Star of David as its coat of arms. In 1897, it was adopted by the First Zionist Congress as its symbol, and in 1948, it became the central figure in the flag of the new State of Israel. Even though the symbol has no biblical or Talmudic authority, it is one of the major signs of Judaism.

(From Sacred Origins of Profound Things by Charles Panati)

 The Halo

The luminous circle of light used for centuries by artists to crown the heads of saints and spiritual leaders was not originally a Christian symbol but a pagan one, and is the origin of the royal crown worn by kings.

Early pre-Christian writings are replete with references to nimbuses of light around the heads of deities. In ancient Hindu, Indian, Greek, and Roman Art, gods emit a celestial radiance upward from behind the skull. Greco-Roman mosaics depict disks behind the heads of Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, and lesser gods, and demigods that were half-human/half-divine.

Early kings, to stress both their special contact with a god and the divine authority invested in them, adopted crowns of gold, gems, and even feathers.

The halo was so pagan a symbol that early Christians discouraged artists from depicting a martyr’s holiness with the nimbus image. Many bishops forbade writers to mention a celestial aura surrounding a martyr’s head.

It’s interesting to note that the word “halo,” though it resembles “holy,” has not a sacred root but an agricultural one. Millennia before Christ, farmers threshed grain by driving a team of oxen round and round over sheaves of wheat on the ground. The Greeks called the track a halos, meaning “circular threshing floor,” which early astronomers adopted to describe the “auras of refracted light around celestial bodies.” (From Sacred Origins of Profound Things by Charles Panati)



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