Tuesday, August 17, 2010

a review of "Signs and Mysteries" [62]

Signs and Mysteries:Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols by Mike Aquilina
Our Sunday Visitor, ISBN 978-1592764501
September 15, 2008, 192 Pages

For this review, we are going to step a bit away from the sorts of books I usually review. Not necessarily the books I read, but the ones I review. I received this book as part of The Catholic Company's reviewer program, and while I am bit tardy in my review, I would recommend this very nice book..and The Catholic Company web site as a whole, which is a great place to find some great books, as well as gifts and items of a religious nature.

The book attempts, 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." And you would have to know that one of my favorites, along with the anchor and the ship, was the lighthouse!
"The second century Roman layman Hermes describes a vision he was granted- of the building of a stone tower near the waterside. And he explains is as an allegory of the Church: built by the waters of baptism, reaching up to the heavens, constructed by angels, who fit together the 'stones' that are the apostles, bishops, martyrs, confessors, and saints,"
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. As Mr. Aquilina writes,
"Just after the turn of the second millennium, Pope Benedict XVI noted that "a highly technological age like our own...risks losing the ability to appreciate signs and symbols." he calls upon Christian authors and teachers to present "the meaning of the signs contained in the rites." And so we have- I, the author and Lea Marie Ravotti, the illustrator- in hope that you, in turn, will take up the task for your family, your parish, and your friends."

My thanks to The Catholic Company for my copy of this book to review.


  1. This does sound like a really interesting book. Neat to see how the symbols were taken over and what they represented.

  2. You're right ... this is a bit of a departure for your book reviews. Yet you still manage to work in a lighthouse!

  3. I'd love to get in on some of these books - I almost never have anything Catholic going on here. I am fascinated by this subject in particular, and I love that cover.


please speak up, I LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU!!