Serpent, Christian Symbolism of

Serpent, Christian Symbolism Of As a symbol, the serpent was used by the early Christians in three different senses.

1. To signify the victory of Jesus Christ over the devil.. This was represented by a coiled serpent at the foot of the monogram on the cross to show "ut qui in ligno vincebat, in ligno quoque vinceretur." Antique gems bearing this device have been discovered, but their date cannot be earlier than the time of Constantine. The type is somewhat altered on medals of this emperor, having a dragon pierced by the staff of the labarum.

Ancient iconography often represented the saints as treading upon the serpent to express their victory over the spirit of darkness.

2. The figure of the serpent was also employed to signify the virtue of prudence or wisdom as commanded by Christ, "Be ye wise as serpents;" and as it was supposed that bishops should exemplify this virtue in its highest form (1Ti 3:2), we often find the pictures of early bishops surrounded by a serpent as by a frame. For the same reason, in the early Latin Church the pastoral staff was terminated at the top by a serpent's head.

3. The serpent was used as a symbol of the cross and of Christ himself. These allegories have been developed by Gretzer and Giacomo Bosio in their works on this subject (De Cruce and De Cruce Triumphale). This use of the symbol, derived from the teachings of Christ (Joh 3:14), soon degenerated into a worship of the serpent itself. This reached its climax among the Ophites (q.v.), who set it in the place of Christ himself (Augustine, De Hoeres. c. 17, 46).

In times of persecution, when the exhibition of the cross was interdicted, the early Christians made use in its stead of the emblem of the serpent, as of the lamb, the good shepherd, and many others. These they wore as amulets and in other ways to show their confidence in the Savior which they typified. They are found made of precious stones, on some of which is cut the figure of Moses, a rod in his hand, and an enormous serpent before him; a second person on the other side of the serpent represents the Jewish people. In the commentary upon the 37th Psalm, Ambrose makes use of the type of the serpent principally as a symbol of the resurrection and of immortality.

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