The image of Jesus dying on a cross is a common icon of contemporary Christianity, however, such symbolism is a far cry from how Early Christians depicted their saviour. Evidence in the form of artworks from Early Christian households and catacombs reveal a very different set symbolism to what today’s followers are familiar with. Three examples of lost Christian symbolism include the anchor, peacock, and wand.
Anchor in the the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, 2nd Century (Source: Persecution Worldwide)
An anchor suggests being secured to a location, like a boat whose anchor is tied to the shore. It was a metaphor used to infer a Christian needs to secure (anchor) themselves to Jesus Christ, especially when the seas of life are rough and windy. This interpretation is supported by Hebrews 6:19-20 in which anchor is specifically referred to as being “hope”:
This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
(Jesus being a High Priest of the Melchizedek order is an issue for another day.)
Sarcophagus of Archbishop Theodoric, marble, 6th century; in the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, Italy.
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica
Ancient legends (which the people of Jesus’ lifetime were familiar with) claimed a peacock’s flesh couldn’t riot. Therefore, the peacock was used as a symbol of Jesus’ immortality. Further, peacocks represent rebirth because each year they lose their feathers and regrow them. Thus the peacock was also a reference to Jesus’ resurrection and annual celebrations of his birth (some sources say peacocks begin regrowing their feathers around December 25 each year, however, I haven’t been able to confirm this information). Coincidentally, symbolising Jesus as a peacock went out vogue around the same time as Christianity became the official religion of Rome.
Early Christian depiction of Jesus performing magic with a wand
Source: Biblical Archaeology Society
Early Christians depicted Jesus as being like a magician who healed people by waving a wand. This symbolism could be a link to Moses’ staff (that he raised to magically part waters). Alternatively, given that Christianity has Greek roots as well as Hebrew, the symbolism could be a transference from Hermes and Athena who both waved wands to perform magic. Either way, the depiction of Jesus with a wand presented an easy to read symbol that denoted magical powers that people living in the first century could understand.
Why the Change of Symbolism?
Christianity did not evolve in a vacuum, it borrowed heavily from the cultures it emerged from, namely Hebrew and Greek. Most people were illiterate, therefore using pre-existing symbols like the anchor, peacock, and wand enabled easy and effective transfer of concepts.
The transformation of Early Christian symbols into alternatives which today’s Christians are more familiar with coincides with Emperor Constantine’s conversion and Christianity becoming the main religion of Rome.
While the essence of Christian faith continued to promote the meanings behind the old symbolism, new iconography that was more appealing to a broader Roman audience developed. In contemporary media studies this is referred to as using codes and conventions that reflect social values.
To the Roman mind, the anchor, peacock, and wand did not evoke the strength of a saviour who was destined to rule the world. To demonstrate Jesus was master of all, He had to be shown as being stronger than pagan Gods. Therefore, the Early Christian’s image of Jesus as a young, shaven, young boy, transformed into a larger than life mature bearded man, not unlike His revivals Jupiter and Neptune. The process of rebranding Christianity from a small fringe sect of believers into a mainstream religion occurred gradually between the 400s – 600s.
For more discussions on Early Christianity and Symbolism see https://renaissance-well-beings.com/