Altars, Shrines and Christian Symbology

I am sure that, no matter what your Faith in God may be, at some stage you came across Christian altars or shrines and asked yourself what is their symbology.

Recently I had a Twitter chat with my good friend and fellow author Jessie Cahalin. You may know her as the fantastic supporter and bubbly personality behind Books in my Handbag Blog. We discussed traveling under #lockdown and where we went via the books we read and via our WIP (work in progress).

And that’s when I realized that both my travels led me to a church.

My current read is Death du Jour by Kathy Reichs, whose books I’m hooked on. This specific novel begins with Tempe Brennan digging (how else) for a corpse buried more than a century ago underneath the floors of a Montreal monastery.
My current WIP begins in the church of Putna Monastery, a Romanian Orthodox monastery built and dedicated by Stephen the Great during his 47 years of ruling of medieval Moldavia.

I entrust you with a short passage from my WIP:

‘The first monk hurried towards the altar. The second one, still throwing glances at the silent graves left behind, broke his pace. Growing on each side were the two massive columns that supported the church ceiling, just before the crossing. The wide space seemed now shrank by shadows. Fighting the urge to turn his body sideways and squeeze through, he closed his eyes and entrusted his spirit to the powers above.

Ahead, a whisper of pardon brushed his ear, an auditory sign that his leader had just passed the crossing and had kneel to pray at the altar by the icon of Saint Mary, the spiritual patron of Putna Church.’

Patricia Furstenberg, High Country, WIP

So I went over my research notes…

Altars, Shrines and Christian Symbology

The word altar originates in Latin altus, a raised area forming the focus of sacred ritual or worship. An altar would be usually erected and placed within a building or an area dedicated to a deity.

A shrine is alto the focus of a sacred activity, but can be anything from a small niche where a holy object is placed (a statue, a cross, an icon) to a place of pilgrimage.

Altars, Shrines and Christian Symbology

But be it altars inside a place of worship or a shrine on the side of a rural path, natural or man-made, they are sacred and symbolize ways of spiritual connection with a higher energy and are places of meaning and power. A safe ground.

Many see an altar as a the universe in a nutshell, reproducing in a small scale the sacred tradition it represents, the focus of the spiritual world. The way a heart is at the (symbolic) center of the body, the hearth the center of the home, such is an altar at the center of the spirituality it represents. Its sacred point.

Altars, Shrines and Christian Symbology
A modest shrine in Village Museum, Bucharest

An altar also symbolizes the place where a holy act is performed (in Christianity weddings or funerals are performed before it), or where an individual may become holy or is united with Christ (through baptism).

Candles and incense are placed on altars, symbolizing light and the promise of a Kingdom to come, of further life. And also a reminder that we do not need our earthly possessions in the afterlife.

The earliest altars were places of sacrifice and therefor were open towards the sky so that the smoke of the burned offerings would rise up, up towards the gods the altar was dedicated to.

The first altar mentioned in the Bible is the one built by Abraham after his arrival in Moreh and his sighting of God, and the purpose was to lead a life of faith.

Location ans shape of an altar

Altars are positioned east because that is the direction of the rising sun, symbolizing, the resurrection, although this was not the case in the very beginning.

Extremely simplified, in Catholic Church the altar, centrally located in the sanctuary, is to be the focus of attention in the church.

In eastern Christian rites the altar has a broader sense, including also the area surrounding it, the entire sanctuary. The altar may be referred to as either the Holy Table or the Throne. Here the altar is found behind an iconostasis (altar screen, usually made of a number of icons).

Altars have a rectangle shape, similar to a table yet never refereed to as a table, which symbolizes the table used during the Last Supper.
Although first Christians celebrated Mass on the top of stone tombs in the catacombs, the first altars were built of wood because it was cheap and readily available. Later, altars became built of stone. There is an extra symbology to an altar built of stone: it signifies Christ Jesus, the Living Stone or the cornerstone.

Altars, Shrines and Christian Symbology
A modest shrine on the road in Brasov

More symbols found in churches or shrines

Bread and chalice:

The bread and chalice represent the Last Supper and remind us of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples. These are symbols we use during Holy Week, Săptămâna Mare or Săptămâna Patimilor, as well as during the receiving of the holy communion or during weddings. The bread represents Jesus’ body, broken for us, and the chalice / cup represents His blood, sacrificed for us. 

The loaf also reminds us of the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes and the words he spoke to his disciples in Matthew 4:4: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Candle and Light:

So close connected with Christianity, a burning candle is a symbol of spiritual illumination and of the joy of witnessing God’s omnipresence. It also symbolizes symbolizes light in the darkness of life, holy illumination of the spirit. Lit in times of death, it signifies the light in the next world, representing Christ as the light.

Yet its brief time reminds us of ow short our life is and is also a metaphor for the solitary human soul.

Its components also have great meaning:

  • wax – pure flesh or humanity,
  • wick – soul, light – love, divinity,
  • flame – godhead,
  • fire – obedience,
  • heat – humility.

Cross

The cross is the universal symbol for Christian faith, a constant reminder of Jesus’ death for our sins and of His joyous resurrection.
Here are some of the crosses that appear in churches today.

Altars Shrines Christian Symbology

Crown 

The crown reminds us that Jesus is King of kings. The crown also represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the cross and the crown of glory given to Him in Heaven.

Circle / Halo

The circle has no beginning and no end. In Christian faith it symbolizes love that knows no end; a commitment or promise (wedding rings), and eternal life (the halo)

A cross and halo symbol on a porch in Village Museum, Bucharest

Christograms

Christograms are monograms for Jesus’ name.

Altars Shrines Christian Symbology

And another quote from my WIP, this time involving a Christogram:

‘Above, the eyes of God and of the saints painted on the church’s dome watched them, their right hand fingers raised in the benediction gesture and spelling Jesus. The index finger points upward, forming an ‘I’. The middle finger curved to form a ‘C.’ The fourth finger crosses over the thumb to form an ‘X,’ while the little finger was curved too, shaped as another ‘C.’ ‘IC XC’, the Christogram, a monogram of Jesus Christ.’

‘Stay here, my son. I’ll take this sin upon myself alone,’ whispered the first monk before disappearing inside the altar.

Patricia Furstenberg, High Country, WIP
IC XC’, the Christogram, a monogram of Jesus Christ

Dove:

The dove is a traditional sign of peace especially when carrying an olive branch (another sign of peace, according to the Ancient Greeks).
The Bible tells us of the dove that returned to Noah with an olive branch, a sign that the storm had ended, flood waters were receding, and solid ground – and hope – were within reach. In the New Testament, a dove descended on Jesus at his baptism.

Fish 

The fish was the secret code word / sign used by early Christians that were meeting in secret for fear of Roman persecution for the their Christian Faith.
The Greek word for fish is Ichthus, which is also an acronym:

Iesous
CHristos
THeou
Uios
Soter

This means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.” The fish reminds us of the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes, and how Jesus called his disciples to be “fishers of men.”

Flame 

The flame represents the Holy Spirit.

Fleur de Lis 

The Fleur de Lis is the lily and a symbol of resurrection. The white and pure lily represent Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. The three petals represent the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

INRI

These letters were inscribed on the sign that hung over Jesus when he was crucified. It’s short for the Latin phrase meaning, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

The Lamb and the Shepherd

David described God as his shepherd, and Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, watching over his flock. The Lamb is a symbol for God, sacrificed by God, our Shepherd, for us. But the Lamb is also a reminder that we are all part of God’s flock, of how God cares for us, goes with us wherever we go, seeks us out when we are lost, and protects us.

Triquetra

The triquetra represents the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is seen to form the Carolingian Cross and the Celtic knot.

Water

Water symbolizes baptism and thus a new life, born of the Holy Spirit. Water represents cleansing and healing.

Some churches are cut in rock

In Ethiopia there are over eleven churches cut in rock dating as far back as 12th century BC. They have secret passages connecting them with secret crypts and grottoes dug deep into the adjacent hills.

Such is the Chapel of Daniel the Hesychast near Putna Monastery.

Such is the Chapel of Daniel the Hesychast near Putna Monastery.

Shrines

Have you ever walked past a shire in your travels? They are often placed along roads in many Christian countries, but even in homes as well as holy buildings.

Shrines are often dedicated to Virgin Mary or to various patron saints important for a specific community as a special time. And such is a Christian grave, with its tombstone and flower offerings.

Altars and shrines are often decorated with candles, flowers or incense, as well as images of deities or saints.

I will leave you with this quote: ‘“Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists.’
― Joseph de Maistre

Have a blessed Easter!

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5 Replies to “Altars, Shrines and Christian Symbology”

  1. That is a great explanation of religious symbols and icons. The amount of work that went into the Ethiopian churches – and all done by hand with no power tools – is amazing. Thank you Pat.

  2. Thank you for visiting and reading, Peter.
    Perhaps the hard labor that went into working on a church it was considered a tribute of their love for God.

    A happy and blessed Easter to you and yours, Peter.

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