The significance of many of the symbols that are found in churches and specifically St. Peter’s Basilica are not common knowledge; nevertheless, the meanings are very important and just fun to know if you want to get the most out of your visit to the Vatican. At one time the masses knew what the hundreds of symbols meant as readily as a contemporary person recognizes the golden arches or swoosh. So, to bring the richness of the Catholic symbolism back, here is a list of 10 symbols that every visitor to the Vatican should know.
The Cross: Sure this is an easy one because it is probably the most recognizable symbol in the world, but there are more than one kind and you will see it applied in the most interesting ways. The Latin Cross is the one that we all know where the arms are about half the size of the leg and is associated with Jesus. Obviously you will see this all over the place, but did you know that many churches are shaped like a cross? St. Peter’s surely is, and that is no accident. The Greek Cross is different from its Latin brother in that the arms and leg are the same length. Usually this cross is associated with St. Andrew who was St. Peter’s brother. St. Andrew was crucified in Greece, with the style of cross they used there, thus the name Greek Cross.
Man holding a sword: This represents St. Paul the Evangelist. The onetime persecutor of Christians was converted to Christianity by a vision of Jesus. Paul then tirelessly traveled throughout the world at the time to spread the Good Word (gospels). St. Paul was eventually executed for his beliefs in Christianity and because he was a Roman citizen law dictated that he be killed in a humane way, so he was decapitated with a sword. You can always recognize St. Paul because he holds his sword and also he usually sports a straight beard. For the most part when you see Catholic statues or paintings and the subject is holding something that looked like it could kill, then it was probably used to kill that person. It is common practice to have the martyr hold the device that they were killed with and for St. Paul it was the sword.
Upside down cross: In the same vein as St. Paul’s execution by sword is St. Peter’s execution by crucifixion. Legend says that St. Peter was granted a final wish before his execution and he asked to not be killed in the same way as Jesus so his executioners obliged him by putting the cross upside down. This method would have been a quicker death because of blood rushing to the head causing massive hemorrhaging as opposed to the suffocation inflicted with standard crucifixion.
Two Keys: One gold, to open the gates of heaven; the other silver, to close the gates of heaven. These are the whole reason why the Vatican exists because Jesus told Peter: “you are my rock, upon you I will build my church and give you the keys to heaven.” Assuredly these keys are probably, after the cross, the most used symbols in Rome. You will see them used in a bunch of different ways including crossed on coats of arms, which represent Popes, simply by themselves and directly in the hand of St. Peter. The only person who will ever be represented actually holding the keys is St. Peter, all other Popes will only have them on their coats of arms to signify that they were or are the Pope. Oh, as opposed to St. Paul’s straight beard St. Peter will always have a shorter curly beard.
The Gospels: The word “Gospel” comes from the Old English “God Spell” and generally means “Good news or good words”. The Gospels are the first four books of the New Testament that describe the birth, life death and resurrection of Jesus. Since the late 100s tradition has each of the four authors Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have been associated with a winged living creature that are written about in the Book of Revelations. The rational is that at the beginning of each Gospel one of the four winged living creatures that surround God on his thrown is alluded to: Mark is the winged lion, Luke the winged ox, Matthew the winged man (not an angel) and finally John is the eagle. The reason why the lion is in so many places in Venice is because St. Mark is the patron saint of the city and the lion is his symbol.
Veil of Veronica or simply the Veronica: On his way to be crucified a woman wiped the sweat from Jesus’s face and an image of his face remained in the cloth. The Veronica has not really been seen in the last 100 or so years in the Vatican but at one time it was the most venerated of all the icons of Rome. In 1527 when Rome was sacked the looters may have found the Veronica leading to its destruction. During the subsequent century there were a number of counterfeits being passed around which leads to a lot of questions as to what if anything is still stored in St. Peter’s. During the 1200s when the icon was at its most revered it was credited with a lot of miracles including healing blindness, raising the dead and most famously curing the Emperor Tiberius, the Roman Emperor at the time of Jesus’s execution, of seeping boils on his face.
The Holy Lance: After Jesus had been hanging on the cross for some hours a Roman centurion who we know as Longinus (in Latin, “Man with a spear”) stabbed Jesus in the side to insure that he was indeed dead. The puncture released a blood and water gush that was dramatic enough, along with the other events of the day, for Longinus to proclaim that Jesus was the Son of God. Volumes and volumes have been written on the Holy Lance and indeed there are a few different places that claim to have the true relic. The reason why it is so important? Because the legend is that whoever carries it will be invincible in battle.
The Trinity: According to Catholic theology The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the three functions of a single God. Churches consistently blend the trinity into architecture and artworks. For instance, many churches will only have three doors: the church symbolizes heaven and the three doors represent the Trinity with the deeper meaning being that the only way to enter heaven is through The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In St. Peter’s the Trinity is blended into the main alter in a very interesting way. The canopy that covers the alter has the dove hovering over the alter, on top of the canopy is a cross which represents Jesus and then all the way at the top in the dome you can see a red and blue swirl which is the Father.
The Dome: Starting with the Pantheon, also in Rome, the use of the dome is meant to represent the heavens. In St. Peters, the main dome, which was done by Michelangelo, floats hundreds of feet above the ground and represents the promise of heaven. As a matter of fact the deeper symbolism is that God is in heaven looking down on us. And that is why you will look all the way into the top of Michelangelo’s dome you will see the mosaic of God in a red and blue swirl shining down from heaven (i.e. the dome). This mosaic was not done by Michelangelo.
The Blessing Fingers: Many times you will see holy figures holding up their hand with their forefinger and middle finger extended; from there the variations of how the thumb is held varies. Often, this hand symbol is thought to symbolize the Trinity with the forefinger, middle finger and thumb representing the three functions of God. But the interesting thing is that this symbol was appropriated from a non-Christian (i.e. pagan) hand symbol of warding off evil spirits. So this hand gesture predates Christianity and has been used in Rome for 1000s of years.