Someone asked if the image up top of the blog is a family photo. It’s not. It’s actually a detail from a large mosaic at S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, and it dates from the sixth century. I chose this image not only because it dates from the era of the Fathers, but also because it depicts several of the Fathers. Visible in the detail above is St. Polycarp of Smyrna (second from left), the teacher of St. Irenaeus and disciple of St. John the Apostle. Alongside St. Polycarp are St. Demetrius, St. Vincent, and St. Pancras — all martyrs. Elsewhere in the same large sequence are Clement, Sixtus, Lawrence, Hippolytus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Cassian, John, Paul, and others. On the opposite wall are the women martyrs. The saints’ names appear above them: “SCS” is the abbreviation for “Sanctus,” which means “Saint” or “Holy.” They hold crowns because they are martyrs; it is a symbol of their victory, as winning athletes were crowned at the end of their events. The palm fronds beside them are another sign of athletic or military victory. Martyrdom was often portrayed as victory in a “contest” with the world, the flesh, and the devil. But you already knew all that if you read my book Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols, which is lavishly illustrated by Lea Marie Ravotti.
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