Do You Know These 4 Orthodox Church Symbols?

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Do you know what the four Orthodox Church Symbols above are, and what they mean? Test your knowledge and learn more about your Church:

(1) Bishop’s Serpent Staff

Ever noticed that serpent staff that bishops in the Orthodox Church hold (or have held near them)? Maybe you saw the staff before but didn’t realize there are two serpent heads at the top. Why would our Christian bishops hold something that is so closely associated with Satan (think Genesis)?

No worries, no heresy here. The staff resembles the bronze serpent of Moses (Numbers 21:4-9). God told Moses to make a figure of a serpent out of bronze, and whenever anyone is bitten by a snake, have them look at the bronze serpent in order to escape death. But what confuses us is that we know from Genesis that Satan came to Adam and Eve in the form a serpent and was cursed for it, so why would that image be what God chooses His people to look at for salvation?

Well, one early philosopher who converted to Christianity and was eventually martyred explains. Justin Martyr tells us…

  • First, the bronze serpent, represents the cross. It was a “type and sign” of the cross.
  • Second, the bronze serpent “was intended for the salvation of those who believe that death was declared to come later on the serpent through Him that would be crucified [the Messiah, Christ] but salvation to those who had been bitten by him and had betaken themselves to Him that sent His Son into the world to be crucified.” They looked at the serpent being reminded that they would be saved when the Messiah comes, who would trample on the serpent and be hung on a cross for our sake.

So the bishop’s serpent staff is meant to remind us of this: the triumph of Christ over the serpent; now Christ is the Messiah who we no look to for salvation from the serpent.

I wonder how many of us think of that when see this staff.

(2) Peacock 

I bet that there are few people who realize that the peacock is a Christian symbol. At least in the Coptic Church, people I speak to usually have no clue about it. The image of the peacock you see above is taken from the bishop’s throne in my parish’s Coptic Church, and all the congregants I’ve ever spoken to didn’t even realize it was there, although it stands prominently at the front of the church.

This symbol was commonly depicted in early Christian art, and it signified immortality, eternal life, and resurrection. This symbolism is derived from the legendary belief that the flesh of the peacock does not decay. One can find the peacock on early Christian grave monuments, in catacombs, and often in illustrations of paradise.

(3) Ostrich Egg

This is probably the most noticeable of the four symbols. Did you know that eggs or images of eggs appear in all sorts of religious architecture? In the ancient world, and at present day, one will find them symbolizing various things. The Romans attached great value to ostrich eggs, and freely used them to decorate their homes and temples. Muslims even use ostrich eggs atop minarets in the Western Sudan, to signify fertility and purity. In Egypt these eggs are occasionally found as well, such as at the tomb mosque of Kait Bey. Use of the ostrich egg by Islam is said to have acquired its origins from Christians in the Middle East, with many pointing to the Copts as the source.

In Christendom, eggs bear significant symbolism for many denominations. Obviously you think of eggs when it comes time for Easter, as a symbol of the resurrection because the small chick breaks from the egg at its birth, just as Christ broke forth form the tomb. The egg, like the seed, contains the promise of new life and hope. It also can represent chastity and purity, since the chick is protected within the shell. The Greeks decorate their churches with plain and ornamented eggs, hanging them in festoons, or suspending them singly from any convenient hook. For them, the ostrich egg is considered good luck, a belief inherited from the ancient Greek, who taught that if man were not watchful over his own soul it would grow bad, even as the egg addles when it is neglected.

In the Coptic Church, many churches hang an ostrich egg just above the main sanctuary door. The Copts differentiate the ostrich egg from all others as bringing to mind the remarkable and ceaseless care with which the parent birds guard their eggs. The vigilance of the ostrich is meant to remind the believer that their thoughts should be fixed continually on spiritual things.

(4) Star/Dome, Above the Paten

Okay ladies, and those who have never served in the altar, I can’t blame you for not knowing this one.

First let me explain what the paten is, and then I’ll explain what is on top of it.

The paten is a flat, plain, circular dish with a raised border all around, which is used to place the body of our Lord upon it during the Eucharist service. The simplicity of its design, with no engravings and other ornaments, is more closely aligned with the earliest extant specimens of like vessels in Christendom than what we find used by other denominations today.

Above the paten is a dome, which is basically two half-loops that cross at right angles and are riveted together. Above the paten there is a cross.

The Greek Church makes use of a corresponding instrument termed the “star,” which is said to have been introduced by St. John Chrysostom. The name “star” is given to this dome with its cross atop it, and when it is placed over the body of the Lord the priest recites the words, “And there came a star and stood over where the young child was.”

The dome/star thus brings to mind the manger where Christ was born.

______________________________

SOURCES/FURTHER READING

  • Erwin Fahlbusch, The Encyclopedia of Christianity.
  • George Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art.
  • The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art, edited by Hope B. Werness
  • Alva William Steffler, Symbols of the Christian Faith.
  • The collected works of Sir Humphry Davy: Discourses delivered before the Royal society. Elements of agricultural chemistry, pt. I, 
  • Alfred Joshua Butler, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Volume 2.

Note that some of the above sources are out of copyright and therefore downloadable for free.

5 thoughts on “Do You Know These 4 Orthodox Church Symbols?

  1. Pingback: My Intriguing Visit to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church—A First-Time Coptic Visitor’s Perspective | ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN MEETS WORLD

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