The donkey is
frequently portrayed in Renaissance painting, particularly in pictures of the
Sacrifice of Isaac, the Nativity, the Flight into Egypt, and the Entry of
Christ into Jerusalem. The most familiar portrayal is in the Nativity scenes,
where the donkey regularly appears.
The donkey and the ox
symbolize that the humblest and least of the animal creation were present when
Jesus was born and that they recognized Him as the Son of God. Their presence
at the birth of Christ refers to the prophecy of Isaiah 1:3, "the ox
knoweth his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib." A legend
of St. Anthony of Padua may perhaps be connected with this interpretation. The
saint had tried in vain to convert a Jew. He finally lost his patience and
exclaimed that it would be easier to make a wild donkey kneel before
the Sacrament than to make the Jew see the truth of his argument. The Jew then
challenged him to make the experiment. To the wonder of the people present, the
wild donkey did kneel, and a number of the Jews and unbelievers were
converted to Christianity. As a domestic
animal, the donkey appears in other legends of the saints.. A typical
legend, to be found in the life of St. Jerome, tells of the donkey that carried
wood for the monastery.
because of its industrious habits, has become the symbol of activity,
diligence, work, and good order. Also, because the bee produces honey, it has
come to be accepted as a symbol of sweetness and religious eloquence. Thus, the
beehive is a recognized attribute of St. Ambrose, for their eloquence is said to have been as sweet as honey. The
beehive is similarly the symbol of a pious and unified community. St. Ambrose
compared the Church to a beehive, and the Christian to the bee, working
ardently and forever true to the hive. As a producer of honey, which is a
symbol of Christ, and for the virtue of its habits, the bee has been used to
symbolize the virginity of Mary.
according to ancient legend, the bee never sleeps, it is occasionally used to
suggest Christian vigilance and zeal in acquiring virtue.
The dove, in
ancient and Christian art, has been the symbol of purity and peace. In the dory
of the flood, the dove, sent out from the ark by Noah, brought back an olive
branch to show that the waters had receded and that God had made peace with man
(Genesis 8). In the law of Moses, the dove was declared to be pure and for this
reason was used as an offering for purification after the birth of a child.
Often Joseph carries two white doves in a basket in scenes of the Presentation
of Christ in the Temple. "And when the days of her purification according
to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to
present him to the Lord . . . And to offer a sacrifice ac-cording to that which
is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young
pigeons" (Luke 2 22, 24). As an emblem of purity the dove sometimes
appears on top of Joseph’s rod to show that he was chosen to be the husband of
the Virgin Mary. The dove was seen by the father of St. Catherine of Siena
above her head while she was in prayer.
important use of the dove in Christian art, however, is as the symbol of the
Holy Ghost. This symbolism first appears in the story of the baptism of Christ.
"And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven
like a dove, and it abode upon him" (John is 32). The dove, symbolic of
the Holy Ghost, is present in representations of the Trinity, the Baptism, and
the Annunciation to Mary. Seven doves are used to represent the seven spirits
of God or the Holy Spirit in its sevenfold gifts of Grace. This refers to the
prophecy of Isaiah 11:1 "And there shall come forth a rod out of the hem
of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots: and the spirit of the Lord
shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and under-standing, the spirit of counsel
and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord."
The dove is
also connected with the lives of several saints. It is the attribute of St.
Benedict because he saw the soul of his dead sister Scholastica fly up to
Heaven in the shape of a white dove. The dove is also used as an attribute of
St. Gregory the Great, for the dove of the Holy Spirit perched upon St.
Gregory’s shoulder while he wrote.
The most frequent use of the fish is as a symbol of Christ. This is beacuse the five because the five Greek letters forming the word "fish" are the initial letters of the five words: "Jesus Christ God’s Son Saviour" in this sense, the fish symbol was frequently used in Early Christian art and literature. The fish is also used as a symbol of baptism, for, just as the fish cannot live except in water, the true Christian cannot live save through the waters of baptism.
The Grasshopper or Locust
grasshopper, or locust, was one of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians
because the Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against the Word of the Lord.
Accordingly, the grasshopper when held by the Christ Child is a symbol of the
conversion of nations to Christianity. This meaning is also derived from
Proverbs 30:27, "The locusts have no king, yet go they forth all of them
by bands," a passage early interpreted as referring to the nations
formerly without Christ for their King. St. John the Baptist was said to have
fed on locus.
The lamb, as a
symbol of Christ, is one of the favorite, and most frequently used, symbols in
all periods of Christian art. Many scriptural passages give authority for this
symbolism. A typical reference is John is 1:29, "The next day John seeth
Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the
sin of the world!" The Holy Lamb is often depicted with a nimbus, standing
upon a small hill from which four streams of water flow (Revelation 14:1). The
hill represents the Church of Christ, the mountain of God’s house. The dreams
represent the four Holy Gospels, the four rivers of Paradise, ever flowing and
refreshing the pastures of the Church on earth.
where Christ is shown as the rescuing shepherd, the lamb is also used to
symbolize the sinner. This subject, usually called the Good Shepherd, is very
frequent in Early Christian art, but was seldom used in the Renaissance. During the
Renaissance the lamb was often depicted in representations of the Holy Family
with the Infant St. John. Here, the lamb alludes to St. John’s mission as the
forerunner of Christ, and his recognition of Christ as the Lamb of God at the
time of His Baptism. This meaning is indicated by the portrayal of St. John the
Baptist pointing to a lamb which he usually holds in his left hand. The lamb
(Latin, agnus) is given as an attribute to St. Agnes, who was
martyred because she declared herself to be the bride of Christ and refused to
marry. It is also found as an attribute of St. Clement, who was guided by a
lamb to the spot where he found water.
According to ancient legend, the huge body of the
whale was often mistaken by mariners for an island, and ships anchored to its
side were dragged down to destruction by a sudden plunge of the great creature.
In this way, the whale came to be used as a symbol of the Devil and of his
cunning, and the whale’s open mouth was often depicted to represent the open
gates of Hell.
The whale also
appears in the Biblical story of Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale and
disgorged three days later. Allegorically, the experience of Jonah is likened
to Christ in the sepulchre and His Resurrection after three days. Unfamiliarity
with the appearance and habits of the whale, and even with the identification
of the Biblical sea-monster as such, prevented the artists of the Italian
Renaissance from painting naturalistic whales. Rather, Jonah’s monster was, to
them, either something in the way of a dragon, a great shaggy fish, or a
In Latin, the
word for apple and the word for evil, malum, are identical.
It is for this reason that the legend has grown up that the Tree of Knowledge
in the Garden of Eden, the fruit of which Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat,
was an apple tree (Genesis 3:3). In pictures of the tempting of Eve by the
serpent in the Garden of Eden, Eve is generally shown with an apple in her
hand, offering it to Adam. The apple may also be symbolic of Christ, the new
Adam, who took upon himself the burden of man’s sin. For this reason, when the
apple appears in the hands of Adam it means sin, but when it is in the hands of
Christ, it symbolizes the fruit of salvation. Such interpretation is based upon
the Song of Solomon 2:3, "As the apple tree among the trees of the wood,
so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great
delight, and his fruit was sweet to my take." This passage has been
interpreted as an allusion to Christ.
As Christ is
the new Adam, so, in tradition, the Virgin Mary is considered to be the new Eve
and, for this reason, an apple placed in the hands of Mary is also considered
an allusion to salvation. Three
apples are an attribute of St. Dorothea.
grapes with ears of grain were some-times used to symbolize the wine and bread
of Holy Communion. In general, the grape, like the Eucharistic wine, is a
symbol of the Blood of Christ. Representations of labor in the vineyard
sometimes signify the work of good Christians in the vineyard of the Lord; the
grape vine or leaf is used as an emblem of the Saviour, the "true vine."
symbolizes triumph, eternity, and chastity. The victor in ancient contests was
crowned with a wreath of laurel. St. Paul contras this wreath with the
imperishable wreath with which the victorious Christian is crowned (I
Corinthians 9:24 - 27). This, with the fact that laurel leaves never wilt but
preserve their green foliage, makes it symbolic of eternity. Its association
with charity is probably derived from the pagan symbolism that the laurel was
consecrated to the Vestal Virgins, who vowed perpetual charity.
The olive is a
true Biblical tree, a tree "full of fatness" which yields great
quantities of oil. Its rich yield symbolized the providence of God toward His
children. "The trees went forth . . . to anoint a king over them; and they
said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us. But the olive tree said unto
them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man . .
.?" (Judges 9:8 - 9).
branch has always been regarded as a symbol of peace, and appears as such in
allegorical paintings of Peace. It will be recalled that when Noah was in the
ark during the flood, he sent forth a dove to find out whether the waters had
receded from the earth. "And the dove came in to him in the evening; and,
lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters
were abated from off the earth." (Genesis 8:11). In this passage, the
olive branch is symbolic of the peace God made with men. A dove with an olive
twig in its beak is often used to indicate that the souls of the deceased have
departed in the peace of God. As a token of peace, an olive branch is carried
by the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary in scenes of the Annunciation. This
symbolism was especially favored by painters of the Sienese school; they wished
to avoid the representation of the lily, the customary symbol of the
Annunciation, because it was also the emblem of Florence, the declared enemy of
Among the Romans, the palm frond was traditionally the
symbol of victory. This meaning was carried into Christian symbolism, where the
palm branch was used to suggest the martyr’s triumph over death. Martyrs are
often depided with the palm either in place of or in addition to the
instruments of their martyrdom. Christ is often shown bearing the palm branch
as a symbol of His triumph over sin and death. More often, it is associated
with His triumphant entry into Jerusalem. "On the next day much people
that were come to the feast, where they heard that Jesus was coming to
Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried,
Hosanna; Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the
Lord" (John 12:12-13). A palm-tree
staff is the attribute of St. Christopher, in reference to the legend that he
uprooted a palm tree to support himself on his travels. After carrying Christ across
the river, he thrust the staff into the ground, whereupon it took root and bore
fruit. A dress made of palm leaves is an attribute of St. Paul the Hermit.
The reed is one
of the symbols of the Passion, for, on the Cross, Christ was tendered a sponge
soaked in vinegar on the end of a reed. It thus symbolizes the humiliation of
greatness. It is also sometimes used to represent the just, who dwell on the
banks of the waters of grace. The small cross carried by St. John the Baptist
is commonly made of reeds.
thorn branches signify grief, tribulation, and sin. According to St. Thomas
Aquinas, thorn bushes suggest the minor sins, and growing briars, or brambles,
the greater ones. The crown of thorns with which the soldiers crowned Christ
before the Crucifixion was a parody of the Roman emperor’s festal crown of
roses. The tonsure of the priest is a reverent allusion to this thorny crown.
The crown of
thorns, when shown in connection with saints, is a symbol of their martyrdom.
St. Catherine of Siena is often depicted with the stigmata and the crown of
thorns which she received from Christ.
East, being the
direction in which the sunrise appears, is symbolic of Christ, the Sun of the
The purity and sweetness of honey have made it a symbol of the work of God and the ministry of Christ. Paradise, the reward of the faithful in their labors for Christ, is known as "the land of milk and honey."
Oil is the
symbol of the Grace of God. It is used in the Church in the sacraments of
baptism, confirmation, ordination, and union.
Smoke has come
to suggest vanity and all that is fleeting because it rises into the air only
to disappear. Symbolically, it is a reminder of the shortness of this life and
the futility of seeking earthy glory. The anger and wrath of God were ofttimes
indicated by smoke. "O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? Why doth
thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?" (Psalm 74:1).
lighting the darkness of the heavens at night, is a symbol of divine guidance
or favor. The Star of the East, often seen in pictures of the Magi, was the
star that guided the wise men to Bethlehem and stood in the sky over the manger
where Christ was born. Twelve bars may symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel
and the twelve Apostles. The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception and the Queen
of Heaven is crowned with twelve stars (Revelation 12:1). One star is a symbol
of the Virgin in her title "Stella Maris," Star of the Sea. A star on
the forehead is one of the attributes given to St. Dominic, while a star on the
breast is an attribute of St. Nicholas of Tolentino.
Water is a
symbol of cleansing and purifying. In this sense it is used in the sacrament of
baptism, symbolizing the washing away of sin and the rising to newness of life.
It also denotes innocence, as when Pilate publicly washed his hands, saying,
"I am innocent of the blood of this just person" (Matthew 27:24).
More rarely, water suggests trouble or tribulation: "Save me, O God; for the
waters are come into my soul . . . I am come into deep waters, where the floods
overflow me" (Psalm 69:1, 2). The water, mixed with wine, in the Eucharist
has come to denote Christ’s humanity, the wine representing His divinity.
Wings are the
symbol of divine mission. That is why the angels, archangels, seraphim, and
cherubim are painted with wings. The emblems of the four evangelists, the lion
of St. Mark, the ox of St. Luke, the man of St. Matthew, and the eagle of St.
John, are all depicted as winged creatures.
By its very nature, blood is the symbol of life and of
the human soul. Christ, the Son of God, shed His blood upon the Cross to redeem
mankind from its sins. "And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it
to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the New Testament,
which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matthew 26:27-28). Red,
the color of blood, has become the common attribute of all those martyrs who
died rather than deny Christ.
The human foot,
because it touches the dust of the earth, is used to symbolize humility and
willing servitude. The woman in the house of the Pharisee who washed Christ’s
feet with her tears did so as a token of her humility and penitence, and her
sins were forgiven (Luke 7: 38). Christ Himself washed the feet of His disciples
at the Last Supper (John 13:5). It is on the basis of this act that it has
become the tradition for bishops to perform the ceremony of washing feet on
gates of Hell.