Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 9, 2008
This book is a delight that many will both enjoy and profit from. Mike Aquilina writes simply yet clearly in explaining where many of Christianity's oldest symbols originated and their many-layered meanings within Judaism and Christianity. If you ever wondered why your church has symbols of a dolphin, a peacock, or an anchor, this is the book for you. And you'll be surprised at just how many "new" symbols you might discover once you have read about it in this fine book.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols is the latest book by patristic scholar Mike Aquilina and a book I was looking forward to reading. In most cases we have some idea as to the root of some of the symbols that have been associated with Christianity, though we might not have the details of how this came to be and their significance in the early Church. Mike Aquilina looks the the symbols that came about in the first four centuries of the Church and does a chapter on each ones that explains their meanings and what historical information we have on them and where they were used. Included are plenty of drawings of these symbols throughout the book that show precisely how they were used.

When early uses of some symbols are more clouded in history he nicely gives some of the theories explaining their meanings. Often we also get references to writings of the Fathers of the Church along with others when it helps to illuminate how these symbols were used in liturgy or devotional practice. I really learned a lot from this book and while I had a general idea of meaning of many symbols I found a wealth of details. For example I will never look at the Ichthys when I see it on someone's bumper the same way. I knew how it came about and that it was a Greek acronym and often used in the early Church, but I had no idea about the Eucharistic overtones and some of the other theological depths involved. Being an ex-Navy Chief I was also pleasantly surprised to see how the anchor was another common symbol used and it's meaning.

This book is not meant to be an exhaustive reference of symbols used within the Church, but just the first four centuries. I enjoyed this book so much I would love to see another book in the same style that explains the symbols the Church used in later years and especially in the Middle Ages.

My one caveat about the book is not the content, but the color of the font used. The text is a dark brown color with a light font weight that I found more difficult to read. The color makes drawings turn out beautifully, but I would have much preferred they have had black text with the drawings being the color they used. Our Sunday Visitor has published books in recent years with multiple colors that made the book quite effective and I wish the same was done here. Though this is no real reason not to get this book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
You will immediately note that OSV is a Catholic publishing house, and indeed, this book is written by a faithful Catholic - yet, there are no attempts at proselytizing, no justification for Catholic doctrines, but a simple and sincere look, with great depth, at early Christian uses of symbols to tell the story of Christ and His Church.

Easily one of my most anticipated books to read, Signs and Mysteries did not disappoint. I found within this small - almost pocket size - book encouragement, words of life, and a link to the community of Christ from long ago. At once, this book serves as a devotional, a plethora of ministerial ideas, and a short treatise on the history of the early Church. One can find within the pages a remembrance that the early Christian community was often illiterate, unlearned men and women who sought to worship their God in simplicity, adopting symbols for themselves to tell that story long before the canon was formalized. We must remember just how underground the first few centuries of Christianity really were - and this book takes you through a list of symbols and codes which served multiple purposes for the individual Christian and the community as a whole.

While many Protestants may fail to fully appreciate the adoption of symbols, some of them foreign to the Bible, appreciation should be given without remorse, to those early Christians who used these designs as decorations, or perhaps as the author states, `hastily and crudely scratched into plaster' to `to stand forever as a perpetual prayer...' They were more than that (a proclamation, the author writes) and indeed, while reading the book, I gained a better understanding of the primitive development of iconography.

The author is able to draw a picture of the early community, one dependent not upon great swelling words of theology taught by some master and doctor of the Church, but one dependent upon such simplicity as can be gained from the knowledge, and the Gospel story, associated with seeing a dolphin intertwined with an anchor.

The author writes, "These signs sketch the basic grammar that Christians peak to one another across cultures and across millennia.' indeed, once one allows themselves to be placed alongside the first century Christian, who perhaps can only draw the mystery of the Cross, shaped like an anchor, or to speak of Christ in pictures of lamps, then they can begin to appreciate the level of devotion to the gospel, and indeed to holding to Christ above all trials and tribulations, that the early community had.

The author makes a point to use not the words of historians, but the words of the Church Fathers and Mothers themselves in letting the symbols speak. He provides a rich patristic history in such a short book, bringing in various voices to the conversation. Further, the design of the book is a beautiful example of a devotional. The writing may be light for some, but it fits into the over all theme of the book.

I would highly recommend this book for those seeking an introduction into primitive Christian iconography, those who merely want to examine the devotional aspects of those cave sketchings, and one who simply wants a good book to read about the early Church and their love of Christ and His Gospel.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2008
Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols is a book that brings our ancient Christian past to light. Any book by Mike Aquilina will edify and entertain in equal parts, but this book also adds an emotional connection to the mix. The systematic explication of the ancient symbols of our Christian faith somehow shortens the distance between then and now. The introduction describes the spiritual renewal of minority Christians in Aleppo, Syria through visits to local ancient ruins. An archaeologist explained to the Syrians the meaning of the Christian symbols in the ruins, showing the long history of Christianity there and how the meaning of the symbols continued to resonate down through the centuries. This book will do the same for you. The illustrations by Lea Mari Ravotti are beautifully clear and simple and full of life. The phoenix and the dolphin, the peacock and the anchor will have new meaning for you after reading Signs and Mysteries. This book would also make a beautiful gift.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 29, 2010
The book attempts to, and I think is successful at, transporting us back to the first four centuries of Christianity. a very different and very dangerous time and a time in which a variety of symbols, symbols often taken from the surrounding culture, were appropriated and given a new, deeper, Christian meaning. These have been discovered in the catacombs, the underground burial grounds of the early Christians, but they have also been found on many artifacts, mosaics and lamps, jars and coins and rings from the first several hundred years Anno Domini. Some of the 25 symbols will be familiar to us, some 2000 years later, those like the fish, the shepherd, and of course, the cross, although even here, drawing quotes from the Old Testament, the Psalms and the writing of the Church Fathers, our understanding will no doubt be deepened by what the author writes about them.

But Mr. Aquilina also explores a good many symbols that we may be only slightly, if at all, familiar with, especially explaining their connection to the early Christians. The ancient mythical Phoenix is, as St. Clement of Rome wrote, "a wonderful sign" of the resurrection. Then there is the Dolphin, an animal the ancient people..and many even today...considered the sailor's friend, a guide that would lead ships in danger to a safe harbor. So it was not difficult for early Christians to see the dolphin as a symbol of the Christ, "rescuer, guide and friend."

Each chapter is fairly brief and while the explanations may not be exhaustive, they are an excellent introduction to the subject. There are numerous, very nice, illustrations by Lea Marie Ravotti, in a brownish color that really makes them stand out clearly. Which leads to my only issue with this book. The text is set in the same brownish color, which I found fairly light and a slight bit hard on the eyes to read. Great for the drawing, not so much for the text.Nevertheless, this is a very nice book, a fine introduction to an important subject and a book that would make a lovely gift.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2009
I recommend this book. With our modern churches almost devoid of artistic decoration, this may be the only place you see these symbols. This book makes for an intersting read. I just wish he comes out with another book on symbolism found later on in Church History.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 2008
A great read and a great reference source, and beautifully illustrated as well. But, "Signs and Mysteries" is more than that: it takes us on a pilgrimage of sorts, delivering "urgent messages" from our ancient brothers and sisters in Christ, because, as Mike Aquilina tells us of the symbols he explicates:

"The first Christians traced those lines because they wanted them to stand forever as a perpetual prayer, for remembrance of the dead, for the perseverance of the living, and for deliverance in times of trial."

Exploring these ancient (but still relevant) symbols is far more than an archaeological exercise. "Signs and Mysteries" is a fascinating read and a valuable reference, as well as a visual feast, but just as importantly, it's about connections to our Christian family. It is a personal book in the best sense of the word -- a book that connects us, through the shared and vital language of symbols, to the person of Jesus Christ.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I bought two copies of this book, one for my library and one for our church library. Here's why:

It's a plunge into the ancient world and the signs and symbols that the earliest Christians used to express their faith. The Christians felt they "could appropriate the symbols of pagans and Jews and 'baptize' them, putting them to Christian use" (p 16).

Philosophers were thought to be wise men, so we find Christ clothed in the pallium of philosopher in some of the catacomb paintings. Another symbol common to the pagans was the phoenix, a myth throughout most of the ancient world. Because the phoenix supposedly rose from the ashes, it became a common symbol of the resurrection.

Every chapter in this book is lavishly illustrated with drawings of the ancient paintings or objects, not photographs, for which I was very grateful. Anyone who has ever practically gone blind trying to decipher the faded scratches upon an old lamp, or the flaking painting on an ancient wall, will be very grateful for these clear, striking drawings.

Aquilina fills the book chock full of entertaining snippets about the symbols, including Moses, the dolphin, and the fish, and a host of others. No doubt you, like me, has always associated a dove as a sign of the Holy Spirit. But "among the ancients, however, the dove almost always represented the soul of the believer" (p 114).

This book will be of interest to scholars as well as anyone with an interest in early Christianity.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2011
This book is short but appears to be well written and lots of early sources are considered. I didn't think I was badly educated but I hadn't heard of the 'orant' before. A very good little book that considers relevant imagery associated with the early Christian church - the writer is a Catholic but this would be of interest to all mainstream Christians.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2009
Mike Aquilina beautifully describes the ancient signs of our Catholic Faith while also giving us a tour of history. The great churches of Christendom are filled with ancient signs that modern Christians perceive as coded hieroglyphs. Aquilina unlocks their meaning and in doing so enriches our faith. Highly recommended.
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