Altars, Shrines and Christian Symbology

altars shrines 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!

Follow this blog:

A Poem You Can Read in English and Afrikaans

A poem you can readin English and Afrikaans

Seen sometimes as barriers, languages are the tools we use to communicate and understand each other or the information at hand, such as this poem we can read in both English and Afrikaans.

MY STORIES BEGIN AS LETTERS 

My pen is my wonderland. 
Word water in my hand. 
In my pen is wonder ink. 
Stories sing. Stories sink. 

My stories loop. 
My Stories stop. 
My pen is my wonder mop. 
Drink letters. 
Drink my ink. 

My pen is blind. 
My stories blink. 

by Joe Public, South African-based ad agency – source

What the poem means to me as I read it in English

To me, My Stories Begin as Letters is a writer’s confession. Whatever he writes is nascent as an inner thought, as an intimate letter to oneself.

There are so many ideas swimming through a writer’s mind, yet not all of them will come to life in ink on paper and even fewer will reach a conclusion.

But when this happens a part of the writer’s life, of his energy, of his pen, will remain trapped inside that story forever. A bitter-sweet conclusion.

What the poem means when read in Afrikaans

Most of the poem has a similar meaning to what one would get when reading it in English, perhaps with these two minute exceptions:

  • The pen’s ink is fluid and so are the words it puts on paper, like a fluid that runs through the writer’s hand.
  • The pen and its ink can, in the hands of a writer, create a wonderful story.

Lost in translation or not?

Between the English and Afrikaans readings of the poem above all the words have the same meaning except for the following three:

  • The English meaning of the Afrikaans words:
  • word = become, transform
  • loop = flow, walk
  • blink = shiny, sparkly

As we switch between two languages and read through the prism of each one’s cultural background that we basked in when exposed to it, when assimilating it, is our ideology changing as well?

Let’s imagine the poem as a painting we regard in a museum. The culture is the room in which the painting is hanging and the ideology is the way we take the painting in as we first see it.

Change its location, its language in this instance, and we see the painting in a different light.

Are the Afrikaans and English languages related?

Yes, they are both Indo-European languages.
The Afrikaans language, also called Cape Dutch, is a West Germanic language developed from 17th-century Dutch by the descendants of European colonists (Dutch, German, and French), of indigenous Khoisan peoples, and of African and Asian slaves living in the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope (today Cape Town, South Africa).
Modern Afrikaans language, or informal Afrikaans, is the result of many other language influences, both foreign and indigenous, on the original Afrikaans dialect.
The English language is a West Germanic language of the Indo-European language family and is closely related to Frisian, German, and Dutch (in Belgium called Flemish) languages.

Since 1994 Afrikaans is one of eleven official languages of South Africa.

Follow this blog:

Rafik’s Journey in Silent Heroes. An Afghan Village

Welcome to Rafik’s journey. The youngest character in Silent Heroes, Rafik travels from his Afghan village of Nauzad all around Afghanistan. It isn’t a journey made by choice, but out of necessity and bravery.

A critical political hot-spot for the past two millennia, Afghanistan is a country often mentioned in news headlines, yet one that few people choose to think of, and even fewer are aware of its natural beauty.

Life for Afghan children, the true Silent Heroes of any Afghan village

How was your life when you were a child of eight years old? When I was Rafik’s age, I wouldn’t even dream of going around the town on my own. My grandmother or my parents would still walk me to school. Yet Rafik and his friends venture daily outside their village.

boy and girl. Silent Heroes Afghan village
An Afghan boy a little younger than Rafik

They start their walk early, right after sunrise. It is a 10 kilometers march to the nearby stream to collect water for drinking, washing and cooking. Then they tread back, bent under the unforgiving Afghan sun and the liquid weight of their buckets and yellow plastic containers, for another 10 kilometers, home.

The water sings while their small feet dance on the hot sand. Sometimes a few drops would spill and the youngest children would laugh to see them roll away over land so dry that not even water can penetrate it. The older ones would scold them. Water is precious and they don’t want to take this journey again, later in the day. The sun is unforgiving and so are the landmines that litter the ground between their village and the stream, like weeds sprouting after rain, but planted by Taliban. So the youngest ones would burst into tears. That one word, Taliban, has this effect on them, as it has on their older sisters and their mothers.

Here, in Afghanistan, one does not need folk tales with monsters to tell their young. To scare them. Here, in Afghanistan, the monsters are real and they walk between the people.

Once a well-known bazaar, today Nauzad village, where Rafik lives with his mother and older sister, is no more than a ghost town, a dusty landmark lost in the shrub-lined valley of the Nauzad river. The only majestic landmark that still stands is that of the Hindu Kush Mountains, profiling in the horizon. With all their men gone to war, life has become a way of simply surviving from one day to the next, the hot climate being just as unforgiving as the Taliban insurgent group operating in the mountainous area rising in the north.

In the beginning of Silent Heroes Rafik is entrusted with a life-and-death mission…

‘Between their skirts, a skinny boy of eight moved along.’

‘Rafik wiped the salty drops invading his eyes with the dusty sleeve of his shirt, yellow-tinged by time and wear. His head was ablaze and sweat trickled down his neck, soaking the back of his pants. His feet bounced on the already hot sand. The boy was sure they looked like the naan his mom used to cook in the tandoor. Back when flour was still available. He would crawl behind her and grab fresh bread out of the basket to share with his friend. She would laugh and playfully snap at him. But not anymore. For the last year there had been no one for him to share his naan with.
One morning, his friend had left to fetch water and never returned. They found him on the field, halved by an IED.
Rafik felt his chest ready to explode with the pain of memories and wiped his eyes again, although no tears came. The rough sleeve against his face helped relieve the agony in his chest.’

Silent Heroes by Patricia Furstenberg
Afghan sunset over Hindu Kush mountains
an Afghan sunset

Placing an entire country on Google maps

I invite you to open Google maps and search for Afghanistan. Now zoom in. How many places can you actually visit? Why do you think it is still impossible to zoom into Afghan locations?

Did you know that the Afghan maps you do see today on Google Maps were not visible before October 2011? Most of Afghanistan was pretty much off the map.
A man named Hasen Poreya and his friends, the Afghan Map Makers, all volunteers, walked around Herat with pen and pencil in hand and filled in all the missing details from Google maps.

Herat is Afghanistan’s third largest city and it was a major historical landmark along the silk road. The Afghan Map Makers have put streets, parks and even the Herat University on the map – so that people from all over the world can discover their town all over again. They, too, are the Silent Heroes of any Afghan village.

Afghanistan before and after the Map Makers have added details on Google Maps
Afghanistan, before and after the Map Makers have added details on Google Maps (source, Google Maps blog)

Where will Rafik travel next?
Come back in a few days to find out – or subscribe to my blog posts.

Until then, you might like to read:
5 Remarkable Places You Will Want to Visit After Reading Silent Heroes, When Love and Values Are Worth Fighting

You can BUY Silent Heroes from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon Australia, Amazon Canada, or Amazon Worldwide: link here to your preferred Amazon website.

Follow this blog:

Autumnal Sepia and a Letter from a Squid

Autumn Sepia @PatFurstenberg

When I think of sepia, first to spring to mind are treasure family mementos on small squares of paper, with laced edges or the 1930’s “pearl” colored MGM movies.
Yet sepia is also one of Autumn’s first gifts.

A sepia painting in Autumn

Fall paints the world with the melancholy of old photos.
Mulching leaves underfoot, rimming my shoes with a layer of tears.
Smells of earth filled with secrets and the promise of snow to come.
A necessity step.
I take it and bring thanks.

Sepia - Fall paints the world with the melancholy of old photos.
Sepia – Fall paints the world with the melancholy of old photos.

A Letter from a Squid

I imagine the 19th century seafarers falling overboard, suddenly forced to wrestle a giant squid to save their own life. Having already reached the end of a bitter yarn spun out of mutiny, little pay and, perhaps, lack of shore privileges, the sailor punches and wrestles the best and eventually, defeats it in its own habitat.

Seafarers fighting the giant squid
Seafarers fighting the giant squid

I can see the exhausted mariner at the end of the fight, every neuron in his brain demanding oxygen, his own fervor for life pulling him to the surface. Braking the waves, a helpless human again, addicted to oxygen.
And perhaps with blue skin.
An angry cuttlefish always releases an inky secretion.
It was the 19th century painters who realized its chromatic use first. But surely after the seamen.

Ever received a letter from a squid?
Ever received a letter from a squid?

More autumn colors coming soon… Until then…

As Good as Gold

“I have a confession to make. I’m not much of a dog lover. I’m more a cat person so I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy As Good As Gold, celebrating dogs. I needn’t have worried. I thoroughly enjoyed this charming collection of verse and as a result of reading it I think I understand dogs so much better.”

@Lindahill50Hill
Follow this blog:

Haiku-San, Ocean, #Haiku #Sunday #HaikuSan via @PatFurstenberg

Ocean, a Sunday Haiku: Haiku-San

Crashing solemn waves

Seagull’s woeful cry above.

Ocean’s lonely tune.

~~~~~

Read more poems inspired by the force of sea and the bravery of animals in my latest books:

Vonk the Horse: Spark, the Bravest Stallion of the 18th Century
Vonk the Horse: Spark, the Bravest Stallion of the 18th Century

Vonk the Horse: Spark, the Bravest Stallion of the 18th Century.
Sail the high seas to the end of the 18th century, the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere. When a ship hits a bank of sand near the Cape of Storms (Cape Town), all spectators on land fear for the lives of those on board for the waters are frigid and currents strong.

eBook, 99c/99p/0.99EUR or read free on Kindle Unlimited: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Australia, Amazon Canada, Amazon Deutschland.

Jock of the Bushveld: Africa's Best Loved Dog Hero by Patricia Furstenberg
Jock of the Bushveld: Africa’s Best Loved Dog Hero

Jock of the Bushveld, Africa’s Best Loved Dog Hero. Jock, the runt of the littler, the smallest of puppies, lived to enjoy a full and adventurous life at the side of his master. Even those overlooked and picked on can grow to become brave and reliable dogs, deeply loved by their owners. Jock and his master shared a life of adventures in the African bush, transporting goods for a living, hunting their food together and sharing the warmth of the fire under a blanket of stars at night. Happy to have each other.
eBook, 99c/99p/0.99EUR or read free on Kindle Unlimited: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Australia, Amazon Canada, Amazon Germany.

Huberta the Hippo: Amazing Adventures of a Happy River Horse
Huberta the Hippo: Amazing Adventures of a Happy River Horse

Huberta the Hippo, Amazing Adventures of a Happy River Horse. Read about the adventures and misadventures of a real African hippopotamus that, one day, at noon, decided to migrate south: “The moon sees all from way up high, I wish to also see the world go by.” It took Hubert many years to travel 1 600km south, along the South African coast. Along the way Hubert made many friends and enemies as he was a friendly hippo but with a rather large appetite and he didn’t quite followed the human rules. Nobody knows why Hubert migrated, but we do know that he was happy when he reached his final destination and that only after his death was discovered that he was, actually, a girl.
eBook, 99c/99p/0.99EUR or read free on Kindle Unlimited: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Australia, Amazon Canada, Amazon Deutschland.

You can find more Haiku in my new book of poetry, As Good AS Gold:

It is uplifting, positive and a pleasure to read and as a dog lover it warmed my heart, some made me laugh, some made me think, some made me smile inside.” (Donna’s Book Blog)

A beautiful, uplifting and endearing read – I loved it!” (5* Amazon Review)

As Good As Gold is also available in Large Print, colorful pictures, a dyslexia friendly edition: get it on Amazon UK, Amazon US 

I chose the name Haiku-San as it derives from Haiku, meaning unusual verse in Japanese (hai=unusual, ku=verse, strophe) and San, the honorific Japanese title when speaking about people. San is also the phonetic transcription of the first syllable of the English word Sunday, Sun-day hence Haiku-San, a Sunday feature on Alluring Creations involving Haiku I write.

Text and Haiku-San © Patricia Furstenberg.

(Image courtesy Jakob Owenss, Unsplash)

I hope you enjoyed my haiku. Let me know your thoughts in comment below.

Follow this blog: