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Christian symbolsChristian symbols

The Church has made use of symbols since the first followers of Jesus began to meet and to share the good news of God’s love for all humankind. Among the frequently used symbols in the Evangelical Lutheran parish churches in Denmark are the cross, the crucifix, the fish, the dove and the ship.

The empty crossThe empty cross

The cross was an instrument of execution used by the Romans at the time of Jesus and represented a very painful and disgraceful death. It tells the story of Jesus' suffering and sacrifice and symbolises the burden and the pain that a follower of Jesus must be ready to take on. The horizontal bar symbolises the divine and eternal whereas the vertical bar represents what is earthly, human and temporal. Thus the cross is also a symbol of the encounter between heaven and earth. The empty cross symbolises the victory of life over death and the miracle of resurrection.

The cross on the Danish flag and the picture of the Jelling Stone in the Danish passport (and also used as this website's background) are two of many examples of Christian symbols being associated with Danish nationality.

The crucifixThe crucifix

The word crucifix comes from Latin cruci fixus which means "(one) fixed to a cross". It differs from the empty cross in that it has a representation of Jesus' body. It illustrates Jesus' suffering and death on the cross and symbolises how his sacrifice brought salvation to the world. The crucifix is less frequent in the parish churches than the empty cross and is mostly found in old church buildings. This is because the Evangelical Lutheran Church focuses on the victory of Jesus more than on his suffering.

The fishThe fish

© Lennart Hell

The Greek word for fish is ichthys, and the word has been used as an acronym for Christ since the Early Church: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, meaning Jesus Christ God's son Saviour. During periods of persecution by the Roman Empire the early Christians used the ichthys as a signal to fellow-Christians to mark meeting-places and tombs. 

Today you sometimes see cars with an ichthys on the back. Some Christians in Denmark use the ichthys to signal that they (the owners of the car) are Christians.

The doveThe dove

The dove is a universal symbol of peace. For Christians it also symbolises the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was baptised, "the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove." (The Bible, the Gospel of Luke, chapter 3).

The shipThe ship

The ship symbolises the Church. The Gospel of Matthew (chapter 8, verses 23-27) tells the story of Jesus calming a furious storm while on a boat with his disciples. As an analogy the Church can be seen as a crew sailing on a ship called Life, towards the Kingdom of God, with Jesus as the captain.

The main part of the church building, the nave, is called skibet ("the ship") in Danish. It is sailing eastwards which is why the chancel of the church faces east while the church tower faces west and the church porch south in old church buildings.

The tradition of hanging a model ship in the church – a tradition that is known in most of Europe – caught on in Denmark after the Reformation. Often the ship models an existing ship and carries a name, e.g. Håbet ("the hope") or Danmark. Some model ships are gifts offered by seamen who have survived a shipwreck and want to show their thankfulness. Interestingly, the model ships usually have no lifeboats on board.