The cross, a white dove, the Greek “Ichthys” fish—these are all symbols in Christianity we’ve come to well recognize throughout history. Each with a distinctive significance and often direct Biblical metaphors. And while many people are quite familiar with these prominent Christian symbols, they may be less familiar with some of the more unorthodox imagery—including the unicorn.
That’s right, the mythological horned horse that only exists in fantasies at one time in history was used to represent Jesus. With this in mind here are 5 unusual symbols for Christ you may not know about.
1. The Unicorn
The unicorn as many know is a small horse or goat with a single spiraling horn on its forehead. This magical creature first appeared in early Mesopotamian artworks, and according to Britannica was also referred to in Indian and Chinese ancient myths. Despite its origins, some may be surprised to learn the unicorn was adopted into Christian allegorical art in the middle ages. The story goes, as noted by Getty, hunters would attempt to hunt the mysterious and powerful unicorn without success. In order to lure it into submission, they would place a maiden virgin in the middle of the forest. The moment the unicorn sees her, he embraces her and covers her body as protection—allowing himself to be slain by hunters. The maiden represents the Virgin Mary, and the unicorn represents Jesus who offers his life as a sacrifice to protect the vulnerable. You won’t look at unicorns quite the same way again.
2. The Shamrock
The shamrock serves as not only a widely known representation of Ireland and Irish culture, its roots are securely in the Christian faith. Saint Patrick intended to use the three clovers to illustrate the trinity to the Irish population according to Baptist Press. His form of evangelism using this concept became so widespread that the shamrock began to take a life of its own outside its theological origins to the international Irish symbol we know today.
3. The Pelican
If there’s any bird referenced for Christ—it’s most likely the dove, representing purity of spirit. It makes the choice of the pelican even more unorthodox in comparison. According to Getty, in medieval times, the mother pelican served as a natural illustration of Christ’s sacrifice. According to stories, the mother would give birth to young chicks. As they grew older they’d become violent toward their selfless caretaker. Angrily, the mother strikes back and kills the chicks but after three days and full of regret, would pierce her own side. The blood falls onto the chicks and revives them as the mother passes away, representing ultimate sacrifice. The rebellion and initial attack from the chicks represents the fall of man, leading to their death—the consequence of sin, leading to Christ’s sacrifice for His children who revived man with His blood. In this context, the symbolism while a bit harsh is ever-clear and yet another fascinating interpretation of Christ.
4. The Anchor
The anchor with an obvious meaning: safety, support and hope should come as no surprise as one of the oldest symbols for Christ. Commonly found in Roman catacombs, the anchor was used to signify the hope found in Christ. Some scholars consider the anchor “one of the oldest symbols of the cross.” Historians all give credit to Hebrews 6:19-20 for the popular imagery: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”
5. The Panther
The panther became another popularized symbol for Christ in Middle Age Europe. According to Getty, it represented a sign of unity, strength and harmony. Stories would note the panther slept for three days, representing the span between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. It was also said the panther’s roar was “sweet” or “soothing,” paralleling the intimate communication between Jesus and God. The final connection is the panther’s opposite—the dragon representing the devil who would hide from the cat. Painters would often use rainbow colors to reflect the light and harmony offered by the panther.