Explore the artistic expression of Catholic religious belief. Discuss religious images as these relate to symbols, the Divine, or teaching of that belief system. 

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Catholicism is rich with symbolism and ceremony as a means to worship.

In the exploration in the pageantry and artistic expression of Catholic doctrine, it is important to consider the fact that Catholicism was the first Christian religion, begun with the apostle, St. Peter, as the first pope. As a result, the use of certain symbols and practices began with the early Christians who had to secretly worship in the catacombs, and are, thus, part of a long tradition.

  • Symbolism

Candles - Vigil candles and Votive candles are used frequently. The use of candles goes back to the early days of Christianity when they were the only light in the catacombs where worship was held. 

  1. Vigil candles - These candles are lighted as an expression of one's love and solidarity with the person(s) for whom they are placed.
  2. Votive candles - These candles are often in the back of churches or off to the side. They are placed before statues of saints or of the Lord or Mary to whom a favor or petition is made. There is usually an offering box by these candles, but it is not requisite for the person lighting a candle to contribute.
  3. Altar candles - These candles are lighted for liturgical functions such as the Mass; these candles are lighted before the Mass and extinguished only after the Mass. Made of pure beeswax which symbolizes the pure flesh of Christ, born of His Virgin Mother, the candles' wicks represent the soul of Christ and the flame His Divinity and His presence.
  4. Seasonal candles - For Easter, the Paschal candle, a candle that symbolizes Christ as the light of the world, is used. Inserted into the side of this candle are five grains of incense formed into a cross. These grains represent the aromatic spices used to prepare Christ's Sacred Body for the tombs. Also, these grains represent Christ's five wounds.
    --During Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, an Advent wreath is lighted. This is a symbol of the anticipation for the coming of Christ, a season of reflection and penance. There are four candles and each Sunday one is lighted; each candle stands for 1,000 years from Adam and Eve until the Nativity. The third candle is pink, rather than purple like the others, which symbolize penance. The candle is pink as it symbolizes joy that Advent will soon end. It is lighted on Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday named for the opening antiphone that begins, “Rejoice (gaudete) in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.”

The rosary - St. Louis de Montfort said, "When the Holy Rosary is said well, it gives Jesus and Mary more glory and is more meritorious than any other prayer." The rosary beads are used for prayer and are a means of counting these prayers; on the end of the rosary beads, there is a small crucifix, which symbolizes Christ's dying for the salvation of mankind by removing the stain of sin. There is also a small medal which resembles the Miraculous Medal, given to St. Catherine Labourne on November 27, 1830. When it was given to her, Mary told her that whoever would wear medals like this would receive special graces. For some, this medal signifies also the ten Hail Marys said in each decade of the rosary.

The scapular - The scapular is associated with the Carmelite Order (nuns), and has two depictions at each end, usually one of Jesus on one end and Mary on the other. It is worn as a symbol of the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

It offers an effective symbol of Mary's protection to the Order of Carmel—its members, associates, and affiliates—as they strive to fulfill their vocation as defined by the Carmelite Rule of Saint Albert: "To live in allegiance to Jesus Christ."

Statues and Paintings and Stained Glass Windows - Catholics use statues, paintings, sculptures, and other forms of art as aids in the recollection of the saint or deity that is depicted. For instance, the early stained glass windows and carved doors of Gothic cathedrals, for instance, taught through pictorials the lives of Jesus, the saints, and Biblical passages such as those of Creation and Judgment Day.

  • Pageantry and Ceremony
  1. History - Much of the pageantry and "costuming" can be traced to Renaissance costumes worn to signify position. For one thing, the Pope at one time was also the king (of Italy), and many cardinals held high political office, as well, so beautiful robes were worn. To this day, in the Catholic Church, there is a hierarchy and certain vestments and colors distinguish the religious offices from one another. For instance, only cardinals, who hold the highest except for the pope, wear red. One beautiful symbol of office is the Papal Tiera. For High Masses and Feast Days, the priest wears more decorative vestments or additional clothing, but even at regular Sunday masses, there are certain garments worn. The history of these vestments goes back to the Greco-Roman times.
  2. Vestments - These symbolize the function of the priest as well as the beauty of the celebration of the Mass. There are two interpretations of the significance of the vestments: (a) They are symbolic of the passion of Jesus Christ and (b) They signify the priest as a soldier of Christ against sin and Satan. Here are the different vestments worn for Mass:
    --The amice is a long white piece that fits over the shoulders. In Greco-Roman times it was intended to absorb perspiration from the head and neck. Its spiritual significance is the reminding of the priest's baptism, when he was clothed in white that signified his purification and dignity.
    --The alb goes over the amice and hangs almost to the feet. It, too, signifies the priest's purity and dignity.
    --The cincture is a long, thick cord with tassels at the end which is ties over the alb.This reminds the priest of the admonition of St. Peter: "Gird the loins of your understanding."
    --The stole is long cloth that goes around the neck that resembles the stoles worn by rabbis as symbols of their position; it is also symbolic of the belts of Roman soldiers which crisscrossed before them and held water and provisions.
    --The chasuble is an outer-garment modeled after the Greco-Roman cape that protected one from the elements. This garment is a symbolic reminder of the charity of Christ.

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