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The lamb and the peacock, the Catacombs of Priscilla

The lamb symbol represents the crucified Jesus pierced by a lance, the “Lamb of God” who offers himself in sacrifice for the salvation of man. In the year 692, the Council of Constantinople, to avoid the confusion of religions and beliefs that could arise from using symbols similar to those of faiths such the cult of Dionysus—where the faithful sacrificed a lamb to induce the god to return from the underworld—it was decided that in Christian art forms, Christ on the cross should be represented no longer as a lamb but in human form.

The peacock is the symbol of the Resurrection and eternal life. Since peacocks lose their feathers during the winter and acquire new even more beautiful ones in the spring, the Christians of the first centuries adopted the peacock as a symbol of the resurrection.

The Good Shepherd, the Catacombs of Domitilla

With the sheep on his shoulders, the image of the shepherd represents Christ the Savior and a soul that he has saved. The meaning is well explained in the Gospel: Jesus is the shepherd and all his disciples of all times are his sheep, and he knows each of them by name. In the image, you see a shepherd carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders. This image also alludes to the soul’s departure from this world: that is why it is frequently found in frescoes in the catacombs and in the sculpted reliefs on sarcophagi, as well as engraved above tombs.


The figure of a person praying, Catacombs of Priscilla

This figure dressed in a robe with wide sleeves and with arms raised in prayer, a gesture of Christian piety, symbolizes the soul that enjoys heavenly bliss interceding for those who remain.

The Chi Rho, the Catacombs of Domatilla

This is the monogram of Christ, made up of two letters of the Greek alphabet: the X (pronounced “he”) and the P (“row”) superimposed on each other. They are the first two letters of the Greek word “Christos,” that is, Christ. This monogram, placed on a tomb, indicated that the deceased was a Christian. Even now, this symbol is very present in churches, especially on altars and tabernacles, and is often found on priestly vestments.


The fish

In Greek, the word for fish is “IXTHYS." Arranged vertically, these letters form an acrostic: “Jesus Xristós, Theú Yiós, Soter” = Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

The tree, Catacombs of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter

The tree represents the life that grows from the earth towards the sky with leaves, fruits and flowers; all signs of its vitality. These are symbols of the earthly life that tends towards the life of heaven, and towards the resurrection.

The dove, the Catacombs of Domitilla

The dove has a variety of meanings. It can symbolize a soul that has reached divine peace, but also the salvific intervention of God the Holy Spirit, the soul of the deceased, and the gift of peace.

The phoenix, the Catacombs of Priscilla

The mythical bird of Arabia which, according to the belief of people in ancient times, is reborn from its ashes after a certain number of centuries, is a symbol of the resurrection.

The Alpha and the Omega, Catacombs of Commodilla

These are the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet. They mean that Christ is the beginning and the end of all things, as we find stated in the book of Revelation.

The anchor

The shape of the anchor as a Christian symbol was like that of the first marine anchors, with two crossed arms and a ring at the top for a rope. Precisely because of this characteristic, it soon became an alternative way of representing the Christian cross, especially in those days when it was dangerous to reveal one’s religious affiliation. Later, it reappeared with a different meaning, and became a symbol of one of the three theological virtues: namely, Christian hope. According to St. Paul, Christ is the anchor in whom we should trust.

The boat, the Catacombs of Priscilla

This represents the Church, the archetype of Noah’s Ark, a means of salvation for the rest of Israel represented by the patriarch and his family. The boat is the means of salvation, a salvation that comes from above, through the miraculous intervention of Jesus, who leads us to the safe refuge of the Messianic Kingdom. It is a means of salvation for those who come aboard, with clear reference to the Church: “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” The representation of the boat, which is found in many tombs, is a symbol of hope for eternity.