An Explanation of the Symbols of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas.
Approaching the church from Nueva Street, one realizes at once that the very entrance with its symbols wishes to convey a message. At the left we behold the shield of faith, a cross; at the right we see an anchor, which is the symbol of hope; above and at the side of each shield there is a heart; the symbol of love. “And now abideth faith, hope, love—these three; but the greatest of these is love.” The three cardinal virtues of a Christian are thus impressed upon the observer.
Examining the entrance more closely we behold a series of other symbols, which should remind us of the works of the Church. She should clothe the naked (cloak), feed the hungry (loaf of bread with knife), teach the ignorant (open book), free the captives of sin (broken shackles), cheer the sick (basket of flowers and fruit), and seek the lost (Lamb of thorns).
Above the doorway is an eagle. This is the symbol of St. John’s after which our church is named.
This is the vestibule of the church. From here there are convenient entrances into the nave, the side aisles and the tower. In this anteroom the worshipper should give thought to the many services the Church renders unto the people. It is such thoughts that the tinted glass panels of the narthex wish to suggest.
In them we find symbols of two Sacraments—Baptism and Communion; also of instruction, confirmation, matrimony, burial, and of the strength, confidence, and hope with which the Church bestows by Means of Grace.
Christ, the Lord of the Church, is represented by familiar symbols in the nave doors. The side aisle doors picture Luther’s coat-of-arms.
Rising to a height of 70 feet, the massive tower symbolizes the strength of the Christian Church and reminds us of Luther’s familiar words: “A tower of strength our God is still.” At the west entrance, which leads into the tower, the symbols of faith, love and hope are repeated. In the tinted glass panels of the double door, one sees a walled city upon a hill and a massive rock with a cross. This should remind us that the Church, with its message of the Crucified Lord, cannot be overthrown. The north side of the tower shows symbols of God the Father, the west shows the Alpha and Omega in combination with a cross as symbols of God the Son, and the symbols in the south side represent the Holy Ghost.
The stairway in the tower leads up the gallery above the narthex. In the uppermost story are the three bells, which have invited worshippers to St. John’s since 1886 (names are Faith, Hope, and Love).
THE SIDE ENTRANCE
There is a side entrance leading into the west transept. The carved panel above the door represents a baptismal font. This entrance leads into the baptistery
The nave is planned for solemn atmosphere. Height and length direct eyes upward and forward. Altar and the Window of the Holy Trinity are the focal point. Lofty stained glass windows and arched ceiling point upward toward God; also representing hands folded in prayer.
Nothing stands between you and the altar, symbolic of “Universal Priesthood of all Believers.”
SYMBOLS ON BAYS
These represent the way to Salvation:
ROSE is prophecy from Isaiah: “The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.”
FLEUR-DE-LYS is an ancient symbol of the Incarnation of Christ.
POMEGRANATE – The ripening seeds burst the enclosing shell, a symbol of the Resurrection.
SHELL is an old symbol of Holy Baptism.
GRAPES & WHEAT symbolize Holy Communion.
EAST SIDE – The Works of Christ
WEST SIDE – The Church’s reaction, or works of the Church.
EAST SIDE – Back to Front:
PROPHECY WINDOW: Priest of the Old Testament (holding symbols of the 12 tribes) during whose time there were many prophecies; one that Christ would come from the lineage of David. Medallions show symbols of the Old Testament.
NATIVITY WINDOW: The Holy Family and Visit of the Wise Men. Symbols are of the Incarnation of Christ, God made Man.
PASSION WINDOW: Christ in Gethsemane and before Pilate. Symbols are of Christ’s sufferings.
RESURRECTION WINDOW: Angel in tomb proclaiming to the Women: “He is not here. He is risen.” It also depicts Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene. Symbols are emblems representing Easter.
FAITH (East Transept) – Christ appears to disciples on road to Emmaus and Christ appears to Thomas. (The risen Christ leads his own to faith and conviction).
CHURCH – The Ascension of our Lord and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost. Ark and Vine are symbols of the Church.
CHANCEL – THE ALTAR
The altar is open to all—Lutherans accept the doctrine of the UNIVERSAL PRIESTHOOD OF BELIEVERS. Communion rail serves only as a place to kneel.
ALTAR MONOGRAMS are the Alpha and Omega, and the IHS symbol from the Greek abbreviation of the word for Jesus.
Christ’s Words, “Abide with me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit or itself, except it abide in the vine: so neither can ye, except ye abide in me.” John 15:4. The vine and fruit appear over the carving and throughout the church.
LORD’S SUPPER was carved by Alois Lang. Today it would cost around $8,000 to reproduce. Time of Jesus speaking about betrayal and disciples are asking, “Is it I?” Chi Rho (X&P) on top of the altar are the first two letters in Greek for Christ.
Three panels in one window represent the Triune God. At the very top is the Apostolic Symbolization of the Trinity.
PANEL I – GOD THE FATHER: “I, the Lord, the first and with the last; I am He.” Isaiah 41:4 STAR OF DAVID is symbolic of the six days of the creation. OPEN HAND OF GOD means God abundantly provides for all our means. The ALL-SEEING EYE OF GOD is next. (This also appeared over the altar in the old church building). The HAND HOLDING THE FIGURES is from Revelation: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.”
PANEL II – GOD THE SON: At the bottom of this panel is the FLEUR DE LYS, a symbol of God made Man. The PELICAN IN HER PIETY represents Christ’s atonement and sacrifice: “O death, where is thy thing; O grave, where is thy Victory?” The RISEN CHRIST is the central theme of the window and of the entire building.
PANEL III – GOD THE SPIRIT: The DESCENDING DOVE is an ancient symbol of the Holy Spirit. The OPEN BIBLE is shown because the Holy Spirit operates through the Word of God. The SHELL AND STREAM OF WATER are symbols of Baptism through which the Holy Spirit enters our lives. The CHALICE AND HOST are symbols of Communion through which the Holy Spirit renews our Faith. At the top: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God,
they shall be the sons of God.”
The four figures represent the four Gospel writers
Shows a prayerful attitude with which the Word of God should be heard.
The marble font is from the old church. It used to stand in the transept in front of a wood carving of Jesus with the Children; however, it now stands in the middle of the chancel floor. Alois Lang once again did the woodcarving.
STONE FROM ORIGINAL CHURCH
It is located in transept and reads “TO GOD ALONE THE GLORY,” in German.
This is repeated on the corner stone of the Wolff Chapel.
WINDOWS WEST SIDE – FRONT TO BACK – WEST TRANSEPT
BAPTISM – Baptism of the Ethiopian and Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist remind us of Christ’s initial Sacrament.
CHRIST BLESSING THE CHILDREN is placed in the Baptistery for we believe in infant Baptism.
MISSIONS – St. Paul is shown preaching on Mars Hill; mission work is one of the Church’s most important functions. (The Cross on the Orb represents the worldwide scope of mission enterprises). BENEVOLENCE – Symbolized by the Good Samaritan and the healing of the beggar at the temple gate. (Food and Cruse mean we must feed the poor). The Burning Heart shows the zeal with which we offer our benevolence. The altar represents sacrifice).
YOUTH – These are scenes from life of Christ to show that the Lord expects young people to be watchful, pure and strong. Two 12-year olds are shown—Jesus as a youth in the Temple and Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead.
HOPE – The Transfiguration of Christ is shown and is a symbol of the eternal life for which we all long. Through the Church, we too shall see Christ. The figures show Christ, Moses and Elijah.
THE PILLARS – 12 APOSTLES
EAST SIDE (BACK TO FRONT)
St. Peter – Two Keys represent Peter’s confession and the Lord’s committal of the Keys to the Office of the Apostles.
James the Greater – Three shells, symbols of pilgrimage. He was first to complete early pilgrimage.
St. Phillip – Tau Cross – Phillip was crucified on such a cross.
St. Matthew – Three purses represent the tax collector’s job he left to follow Christ.
St. James the Less – The Saw. St. James was thrown from the roof of the temple, his body sawn asunder.
St. Simon – Sails and Battle Ax – St. Simon carried the Gospel to far-off lands and was beheaded.
WEST SIDE (FRONT TO BACK)
St. Matthias (replaces Judas) – Open Book and Double Ax. He carried the Word to Ethiopia and was martyred.
St. Jude – Sailboat – a symbol for his many travels to many lands.
St. Thomas – Spear and Carpenter’s Square – St. Thomas built a church in India with his own hands. He was killed with a spear by a heathen priest.
St. Bartholomew – Three Knives – He was flayed alive.
St. John – Sword and Serpent – St. John records these words of Jesus: “As Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
St. Andrew (Brother of Peter) – The X – He died on such a cross.
There are two symbols from St. Paul:
The “SPIRITUS GLADIUS” from Ephesians 6:17, “take the sword of the spirit which is the Word of God.”
The “RAYED CROSS,” is a symbol of faith. St. Paul wrote more on this subject than any other Apostle.
AN EXPLANATION OF THE SYMBOLS OF THE CHAPEL OF ST. JOHN’S LUTHERAN CHURCH
As you approach the Chapel, you will see in the front doors two symbols in glass. They are appropriate to our Chapel, for they are symbols of St. John, the Evangelist and the disciple of our Lord. Our Congregation bears the name of this saint of God.
EAGLE – The first symbol is that of the eagle. John’s Gospel soars to heaven as on eagle’s wings.
SCROLL – The second symbol is that of a scroll, reminding us of the Gospel he wrote, as well as his three Epistles and the Book of Revelation. The scroll begins with the name of John in German, reminding us that our congregation used the German language in its early years.
As you enter through these two doors, you step into the Narthex of the Chapel. This Narthex serves not only as a foyer or vestibule prior to your entering the Chapel proper but it is also going to be a “Hall of Memories” to us, for it is to remind us that the Chapel is a memorial named after one of the departed and sainted pastors of our church, the late Dr. August Wolff. Since many gifts for the erection and furnishing of the Chapel were given in memory of loved ones, this Narthex is truly to be a hall of memories by bringing them to mind. The “Book of Memories” with the names of these memorialized loved ones will be found under glass in the Memorial Desk that is in this Narthex.
The “Hall of Memories” contains a number of symbols in glass. All of them have to do with the hereafter; with the resurrection and the life to come. The Hand of God represents the Father who blesses. The Lamb represents the Son who died for the sins of the world and the Descending Dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit who comes to us. Under each of these three is another symbol related to them. “No one shall pluck them out of my Father’s hand” is quite obvious. The Peacock is a good symbol of the resurrection for the peacock loses its tail feathers only to receive new ones even more beautiful than the old. So Christ took on a glorious body after His Resurrection. The Seven Lamps Before the Throne of God also represent the Holy Spirit and His gifts to us, the redeemed.
The Doorway into the Church has two symbols on it: The Fountain of Life from which we are to drink forever and the Easter Lily, a reminder of the resurrection.
Then comes the Narthex Screen. All symbols in it are based on references to eternity and the life in heaven as found in the Book of Revelation. They do not appear in any particular sequence or logical order. The Ray of Light symbolizes that in heaven “there shall be no night there.” The Open Gateway reminds us that in heaven “the gates shall never be shut.” The Clasped Hands show the marriage of the bride (the Church) and the groom (Christ, our Lord). The Book of Revelation has many references to Jesus, the Lamb, and so we have included the Lamb in the Narthex Screen.
The bottom panes show the joy that is in heaven, THE ANGELS SINGING, the dominion and power that we are to exercise with Christ as we rule with Him (THE SCEPTER), the glory and honor that God will bestow upon us (LAUREL WREATH), and the face that we shall join the angels in heaven in appearing before God (ANGELS).
THE SYMBOLISM IN THE CHAPEL NARTHEX
Beyond the doorway (the door is not a part of the Narthex symbols but belongs to the Chapel proper): The upper panes of glass show the BOOK OF LIFE in which our names are written in heaven, the MORNING STAR of which God says, “I will give him (the redeemed) the morning star,” the THRONE OF GOD before which we are to appear, and the CROWN OF LIFE which God will give to those who are faithful unto death.
The lower set of panes depict the WATER OF LIFE as mentioned in Revelation 21: “I will give water of the fountain of the water of life”; also the comforting promise that God will wipe away all tears from our eyes, the fact that we are to live in the Holy City, New Jerusalem, and finally that just as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden ate of the tree which brought them death, so in heaven we are to eat of the tree of life which is to give us an eternal existence.
The doorway leading into the Educational Building shows two symbols of Christ—the ROCK OF OUR SALVATION AND THE ANCHOR OF OUR SOUL.
The left front window is the Resurrection Window. It has six symbols: The first is that of the EMPTY TOMB. The second is that of the ANGEL BLOWING A TRUMPET: “at the last trump all that are in the grave shall hear His voice and shall come forth.” The third is that of the VICTORY CROWN AND WREATH reminding us of I Corinthians 15 which says: “O death, where is thy sting; O grave, where is thy victory.”
The bird in the bottom panel is a PHOENIX, a mythical bird that after it dies and is burned comes to life again out of the fire. This is the symbol of the Resurrection. So is the BUTTERFLY than comes to life out of the lifeless cocoon as is the BURSTING POMEGRANATE which signifies life bursting out of the tomb.
So we have the “Hall of Memories” which is to remind us of our blessed dead and the fact that a saving God has promised them a resurrection and eternal life. Let us give glory to Him who has destined us for these marvelous experiences.
Finally, let us point out that the mosaic over the Chapel doors reading: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” is designed to be an invitation to enter the Chapel and commune with God our Savior. May we accept His gracious invitation and often quietly enter the Chapel to kneel and pray.
THE SYMBOLISM IN THE CHAPEL
The Chapel is meant to provide a place where one can quietly reflect, meditate, and pray. The PRAYING HANDS appearing in the Chancel wall before you are to give you that impression.
Furthermore, the Chapel may be used for private Baptism, small Weddings and Funerals, and any other occasion where a small group shall be gathered.
This Chapel has been designed to provide you with an atmosphere that will be conducive to reverence, worship and prayer. It has no outside windows except for the skylight. To compensate for the lack of windows, the panels and symbols in the walls give line, shape, and form to the walls. They add a touch of beauty. They also tell a story.
All the symbols in the Chapel, together, form a unit. They tell a story, the story that all things come from God and that, in Christ, the Savior, all things are to return to God: “From God, to God” is the general theme. It is taken from that verse in the New Testament that says of Jesus: “knowing He was come from God and that He was going to God”…
The story of Salvation begins with God. It begins in our Chapel with the Alpha found in the doorway. God, or Christ, is the Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, the beginning. All things come from Him.
The first stone symbol in the left wall is the Hebrew name for God: “Elohim.” It is found in the first verse of the Bible in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The second stone symbol shows the hand of God pointed downward—from His hand come all things, the heaven and the earth. The third symbol again shows God’s hand in process of forming Adam and Eve and thus creating the human race. All of us come from God.
The second panel of the wall symbols reminds us that as time passed, man fell into sin and became lost to God. But God promised in His mercy to save man from sin and Satan. He promised to raise up a scepter, even Jesus Christ our Lord, who was to be both Savior and King of Kings. As God dealt with His chosen people, He gave the law—the 10 Commandments.
As time passed, He sent His prophets to Israel. They spoke of the coming Redeemer. The next panel of symbols is on the prophets. It gives representative samplings of them. Do you recognize Elijah, who was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire? Or, do you recognize Isaiah, whose lips were touched by coals of fire held by the angel with six wings? Or, do you recognize Micah whom the scribes quoted when the wise men came to Herod and asked, “Where is he that is born king of the Jews?” The last of the prophets was John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. He is represented in the darkened glass found in the doorway leading to the Sacristy.
Then Jesus. Jesus is the center of history. All things point to Him. He is symbolized in the front and center of our Chapel. The Cross above the Altar, the Cross with its Lamb, its Passion Flower, the Bursting Pomegranate, the HIS and the CHI RHO lettering, focuses our attention on Christ who is our way back to God. He is the Good Shepherd who has come to seek and to save that which was lost to God.
The four EVANGELISTS, MATTHEW, MARK, LUKE AND JOHN wrote about our Savior. They are shown in terms of the four-winged creatures found in the arms of the cross: the winged man, the winged lion, and AND THE winged ox and the winged eagle.
The Lord’s Disciples are also symbolized. The SHIELDS OF THE 12 APOLSTLES carved in wood and on the beam running across the ceiling of the Chancel. The MOTHER PELICAN, carved in wood on the front of the Altar—the mother pelican which will feed her young on her own life’s blood—is another symbol of the Christ who gave His life as a ransom for many. The other symbols in the Chancel are on the Word and Sacrament through which Christ comes to us.
Now we turn to the other wall. This will be the New Testament wall, just as the opposite wall took us through the Old Testament era.
We begin with the early church, which was born on Pentecost Day. The SEVEN TONGUES OF FIRE represent the Holy Spirit and His seven gifts. He established the Church on Pentecost Day. The next symbol represents the APOSTOLIC CHURCH, the Church that in the early centuries produced the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. This is an interesting symbol, helpful in explaining our belief that God is three persons in one—Godhead. The Father is God, but the Father is not the Son. Jesus is God, but Jesus is not the Father, etc. The FISH represents the age of martyrdom that saw so many Christians die because of their faith, and which in a sense drove the Church underground. The Greek word for fish is ICHTHUS. Each letter in this Greek word stood for the first letter in the sentence, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” The sign of the fish became the identification mark of Christians who believed that Jesus was their Savior.
The next panel takes us through the Middle Ages, the Reformation period and into the present. The HEART, with the TWO ARROWS, piercing it, is the symbol of the great church father, St. Augustine, one of the great formers of the theology of the Church. Luther and the Reformation gave us the open Bible again. His 95 THESES (shown by the paper behind the Bible) helped bring the Church back to the teaching of Scripture. The Church has always been thought of as an ark for safety. The Church of our day is our ark. It is to carry us into the harbor of eternity.
The last pane turns our thoughts to the future—to the end of time and the ends of the earth. The Gospel is to be proclaimed to all men before the end shall come. The CROSS triumphs over the world. Yes, we look beyond time into eternity. We think of the Redeemed who have already gone to their reward. We think of the Church in heaven. Its Lord gives the CROWN OF LIFE to the Triumphant Church. We think also of those who are to follow. They, too, are to be saved and be the people of God forever and ever: “No one shall pluck them out of my Father’s hand,” said Jesus. They came from God and they are to return to God. So that God may be all in all.
With this, we have completed our circle, completed our story and have developed our theme: “from God to God.”
Now our eyes go back to the doorway. We look at the other panel in this doorway and see in it the Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet. Our Lord God is the beginning and the ending, the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega. From Him we come, to Him we are to go. This is the purpose of life and the goal of our existence. Shall we permit it?
We come into this Chapel to kneel, to pray and to be with God. Whenever you have done so and are ready to leave, lift up your eyes to the mosaic above the door. Let is say to you: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.”
Depart in peace.