Mike Aquilina’s Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols is a quick read that provides a comprehensive foundation for further investigation into Christian symbolism. I was given a review copy of the book before a family trip that included many museums full of medieval art, and I found it to be a helpful overview for me and my older children.
Aquilina excels at writing about the early Christians in a way that makes them seem like long-lost relatives. This book is informative without being too academic in tone for a popular audience. As he says in the introduction, “This is not a work of scholarship, but an act of devotion – an act of piety towards our ancestors, so that we might learn to see the world once again with their eyes, and to pray and live as they once prayed and lived.” I enjoyed the mixture of testimony from Church Fathers, detailed illustrations showing replicas of actual Christian art, and citations from other contemporary sources.
Each chapter is a short overview of a symbol, exploring its roots in Jewish or pagan culture and showing how it was given new meaning by the early Christians. It’s a great way to learn more about the diverse groups of early Christians, including the Copts in Egypt and the earliest Jewish converts. I learned about several symbols I wasn’t aware had Christian meaning, like dolphins and peacocks, and Aquilina includes intriguing details like the hidden meaning of the “Sator Arepo” square.
Books like this one are a great way to start breaking open the central ideas of our faith. Christian symbols can be the “hooks” that draw us into a deeper understanding of a particular teaching, or allow us to see new spiritual insights in familiar images. I think this would be a great component of a course on either art history or the Creed – it’s short enough to be read in one sitting but organized in a way that makes it easy to refer to a specific chapter if you happen upon a symbol in a church window or a painting that is unfamiliar. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in learning more about the early Church. My middle schooler found it pretty easy to understand, so I would say it’s appropriate for young adolescents on up, although that’s not to say it wouldn’t be perfect for adults as well.
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