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Symbole - Znaki- Rytuały
The Christian symbols of Europe: Tradition, change and a takeover

L. Rotter, The Christian symbols of Europe: Tradition, change and a takeover [w:] The Christian roots of European identity, A central European perspective, red. K. Sladek, Prague 1918, s. 67 – 74.



Christian symbols of Europe.

Tradition, changes and takeovers



While thinking about any landscape of historical, cultural, artistic, social or any other space, we tend to employ associations and mental shortcuts. This is a natural way of perceiving the surrounding reality. As spiritual beings in physical bodies, we look at our environment through symbols and associations[1].    

There is no denying that the heritage and cultural landscape of Europe is based on the tradition of antiquity (especially Graeco-Roman antiquity) and Christianity (in its different forms). This mix allows for the existence of conceptual references and makes it possible to understand the semantics of cultural content as well as historic changes and social transformations.  

In the contemporary cultural landscape of Europe, we often find that this truth is negated and certain content is intentionally eliminated from social and cultural life. A consequence of such action is the process of semantic transformations of symbols, which – being rooted in tradition and culture – persist, but cease to carry certain meaning attributed to them in the early stages of their establishment. An almost banal example is Christmas. A Christmas tree, which at some point became its symbol, is no longer associated with a specific religion and festival, but has rather become a winter decoration for companies, shops and public buildings. What went further were the transformations of Saint Nicholas. This specific historical figure became a fairytale character. The only thing which links these semantically extreme figures is the fact that both the prototype from Myra and the figure from Lapland give presents. The custom of giving presents is still followed. Nevertheless, we no longer refer to a specific historical figure venerated as a saint among many Christian denominations. Thus, the religious aspect has disappeared.  These, as mentioned before, fairly banal examples point to a progressive secularisation of symbols forming our reality. The elimination of the content of Christian nature or origins from our culture sometimes borders on the absurd.  What turned out to be a problem a few years ago were halos over the heads of Cyril and Methodius on euro coins designed for Slovakia. As a result, Christian symbols which have been hitherto obvious and recognisable are becoming fuzzy in meaning. In terms of public perception, they are more decorative ornaments than signs carrying specific and socially comprehensible content[2].

Currently, in Europe people form the semantics of a social space to a greater extent than it was the case centuries ago. The endeavours to distinguish between the sacred and the profane have become problematic since they are viewed from a scientific or even theoretical perspective. The interpretation of our environment in a religious aspect influences cultural, social, interpersonal, psychological or sometimes even legal relationships. It also refers to religiousness itself and its understanding. As a result, it contributes to the process of laicisation and secularisation and, in turn, pushes religiousness to our protected zone, i.e. the private sphere. As homo religiosus human beings are seeking an alternative. Hence, this gives rise to the emergence of trends propagated by observant traditionalists or ecumenical reformers as well as sparks people's interest in widely understood Eastern spirituality. It can be stated that an atheist attitude is somewhat of a religious attitude. Obviously, this is the case when it comes to the warring atheism, which in fact turns out to be a peculiar form of religion.  Due to their extreme polarity, these attitudes naturally create social conflicts. The conflict which consists in the fact that in semiology the culture of the sacred and the profane try to go one better allows one to single out these two worlds in the cultural landscape and heritage owing to anthropological, religious or even purely semiological studies. In contemporary cultural symbolism, classic (usually central and socially most important) symbols tend to be superseded by the secular ones which with time start to serve a semi-religious function. The intentional and deliberate elimination of religious symbols from our environment brings about their replacement with fairytale characters and symbols from the world of imagination, dreams or fantasy. Even so, removing religion from semiological perception is not fully possible[3].

What is worth mentioning in this context is one of the symbols most associated with Europe, i.e. the cross. Although it is the best-known symbol of Christianity, it is also one of the most common symbols in other denominations. In its different versions, the cross used to be a solar symbol, the sign of life as well as death, ideals, evil, magic, witchcraft, etc. At the outset, it was not present in the Christian culture. Since the first centuries of Christianity it has however been a symbol of Christ's martyr death and, at the same time, the sign of Salvation.  Nonetheless, due to the fact that the first centuries of Christianity were engraved in the culture of ancient Rome, the cross sign could not make its way into positive symbolism. In fact, the crucifixion was deemed one of the most disgraceful ways to die. Without going into detail it can be said that the cross became a symbol of Christians and their Church, the sign of salvation and victory over sin. It must be stressed that the cross has a few dozen forms and irrespective of the fact that the vast majority of them pre-date the introduction of Christianity, over time all these variations came into Christian use and became acknowledged in different Christian circles as their own. In such religious references this sign has become a frequent motif present in European heraldry, sigillography and vexillology. Seeing that these sign systems (especially heraldry) are inextricably bound up with and characteristic of European culture (heraldry developed only in Europe), the obvious consequence was that the cross became inherent in cultural perception of Europe. What justifies it even better is the role of Christian faith prevailing across the whole continent for centuries. Crosses on national flags (e.g. of Denmark, Finland, Sweden or Great Britain), the crosses of the Order of St John, the cross of St Patrick, Maltese crosses, crosses on the insignia of power, the cross dedicated to Cyril and Methodius permanently entered European culture. Despite the fact that this sign is so deeply rooted in our culture, over the past years, it has been systematically rejected as a symbol offending religious feelings (!)[4].

Each institution or group creates a certain order of symbols. This allows for identification and a sense of belonging. Such systems of signs can be created from scratch but more often than not they develop based on the existing ones (via borrowing or semantic negation). It sometimes leads to a characteristic semantic continuum, an extra-verbal system existing in a specific cultural or social space[5].

An organisation which is somewhat of a symbol of Europe is the European Union.  As in each and every organisation, also in this case there arose the need for a symbol which would define, identify and indicate this institution. The most recognisable symbol of EU and, at the same time, Europe is the organisation's flag. Not only does it flutter over many EU buildings but also in government and local government buildings of the member states as well as in schools, hotels or sometimes even shops. It flutters alongside the national flags during different meetings and conventions. It is used as a symbol of certain political convictions, e.g. in political disputes or during election campaigns[6].  

            This vexillum, which is so popular today, has quite a stormy history. Its present appearance has its origins in the debate on a flag for the Council of Europe. The need to come up with a symbol of this institution established in 1949 was quite obvious since its very foundation. Nevertheless, the attempts at determining a graphic version of the flag did not turn out to be so easy.  Even the choice of colour proved to be troublesome.  It was found that red and white could be offensive to some religions while green turned out to be reserved to farmers and Islam.  Even yellow was not to be accepted.  The competition for the flag's design was launched in 1950. As agreed, the flag was to carry a symbolic message which the Council of Europe identifies with and not to have too many colours and symbols (the simplicity of the message was to be preserved).  Besides, it was stated that the flag should be recognisable and its message – legible.  Among submitted proposals the most frequent motif was a cross, which was obvious from the perspective of vexillology and heraldry, a star and the letter E. The cross was associated with Christian roots of Europe. The letter E refers to Europe. This symbol was also used by the European Movement. A star came in many versions. Depending on the number of stars, the semantic meaning changed, e.g. the number of stars stood for the number of member states. Consequently, twelve proposals which the committee considered to be most interesting were outlined from all the submitted ones. A huge number of comments and objections voiced by both the committee and the whole Council made it impossible to choose the winning project. As a consequence, the whole documentation (with the opinions of the Council of Europe members) came back to the committee. With this documentation the other two projects, which did not make their way into the chosen twelve earlier, were submitted.  C. Raymon proposed a golden star on a blue background and S. de Madariaga – stars scattered on an azure field. The constellation of stars corresponded to the localisation of European capital cities. The second project found favour with many committee members. An untenable objection was the view that the creating such a flag would have been quite a difficult task for an average European. In 1951 one project was singled out – a red cross on a golden sun (Paneuropean Union’s flag). The cross motif was opposed not only by Turkey but also dismissed by a few European countries as offensive to Islamic circles. In 1953 the debate on the flag design was revived. The most convincing design turned out to be that of S. de Madariaga. The most attention was paid to colour combinations rather than too intricate forms. The discussions generated an idea of a circle golden stars on an azure background[7].

Initially, a version with fifteen stars was voted through, along with a suggestion that this flag be recommended to all European institutions as a universal symbol. Nevertheless, what aroused controversy was the number of stars. It was to refer to the number of countries – however, this number changed depending on whether Saar was counted. The idea of fifteen stars was rejected on political grounds. The search started anew. In 1954 an alternative version with eight golden circles on a blue field started to be considered; even so, it was rapidly dismissed from arbitrary reasons. The idea of stars resurfaced. The committee found that twelve stars would be the optimum number as a symbol of harmony, unity and solidarity among the peoples of Europe; thus, there was no reference to the number of member states. The final project of a blue flag with twelve golden stars was not confirmed until 8 December 1955. The document stating the decision was to be announced on 10 December the same year, and the flag was officially raised for the first time on 13 December. On 22 April 1986 all the authorities adopted the flag as a symbol of European institutions. The inauguration of the flag took place on 29 May 1986[8].

When the design with twelve stars was accepted in 1955, three descriptions including the semantic one started to function. What is important is that in the case of the design with twelve stars on a blue field, symbolic ideas started to emerge after and not prior to adopting it.  The number twelve was chosen somewhat by accident. As mentioned before, the numbers fifteen and fourteen were unacceptable on political grounds and the number thirteen is generally considered to be unlucky. Thus, the number twelve appeared to cause no trouble. It was associated with the zodiac signs, hours, months, and simply wholeness and totality[9].

The majority of the projects referred to Christian messages, which indisputably shaped the face of Europe. However, the adoption of a project unanimously referring to the Christian tradition turned out to be impossible. Hence, all crosses were rejected from religious reasons.  The flag chosen as the least contentious proved to be a triumph of Christian symbolism.  When in 1950 the Convention on Human Rights was signed in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, over the heads of the ministers of justice there was already a circle of twelve stars. In Cortona’s fresco The Triumph of Divine Providence in its central part, the aforementioned stars are visible. The circle of twelve stars is also the Corona stellarum duodecim of the Virgin of the Apocalypse while the colour blue is generally associated with the Virgin Mary.   In scientific and popular scientific works we can find that the form of the discussed flag refers to the revelations of the Virgin Mary (from 1830 in Paris, Guadalupe, etc.). In addition, when we take into account that the project was confirmed on 8 December (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), the spiritual and Marian context and dimension seem to be undeniable. To conclude, it is worth noting that Arsene Heitz considered to be the author of the drawing and design of the flag admitted that he had created it with respect to Marian symbolism[10]. 


Western civilisation is trying to escape religion and its symbols. Any form of spreading Christian messages, be it literally or symbolically, is especially frowned upon.  However, while being fixated on fashionable political correctness, it is easy to overlook the fact that subconsciously we tend to come back to them. A human being is homotholique de Louvain”, Nop religiosus and the tradition passed down for generations cannot be simply wiped out.


[1] B. Anderson, Wspólnoty wyobrażone, Kraków 1997, passim; K. Kowalski, Europa: mity, modele, symbole, Kraków 2002, passim; Symbole Europy. Integracja jaki proces psychologiczny i kulturowy, red. A. Motycka, K. Maurin, Warszawa 2004, passim.

[2] M. Piróg, Duchowe korzenie Europy, [w:] Symbole Europy. Integracja jaki proces psychologiczny i kulturowy, red. A. Motycka, K. Maurin, Warszawa 2004, p. 39-46.

[3] Z. W. Dudek, Psychologia współczesnej wyobraźni religijnej, [in:] Symbole Europy. Integracja jako proces psychologiczny i kulturowy, red. A. Motycka, K. Maurin, Warszawa 2004, p. 59-70; N. Luhmann, Funkcja religii, Kraków 1998, p. 224; A. i B. Ulanow, Funkcje religii w psychice ludzkiej [in:] Psychologia wierzeń religijnych, Warszawa 1990, p. 329; A. Moreno, Jung, bogowie i człowiek współczesny, Warszawa 1973, passim.

[4] H. Biedermann, Leksykon symboli, Warszawa 2001, p. 171 – 175; B. Uspieński, Krzyż i koło. Z historii symboliki chrześcijańskiej, Gdańsk 2010, passim; S. Kobielus, Krzyż Chrystusa. Od znaku i figury do symbolu i metafory, Warszawa 2000, passim (The symbolism of the cross is discussed here in more detail. Here, more references can also be found).

[5] C. Castoriadis, L’institution imaginaire de la societe, Paris 1975, p. 168-208.

[6] K. Kowalski, Europa: mity, modele, symbole, Kraków 2002, p. 99-178; R. Bichet, Le drapeau de l’Europe, Besancon 1985, p. 7.

[7] K. Kowalski, Europa: mity, modele, symbole, Kraków 2002, p. 112-113.

[8] R. Bichet, Le drapeau de l’Europe, Besancon 1985, p. 8, 25-26.

[9] P. Levy, Douze etoiles qui resteront douze „Revue mensuelle de l’Association des Amis et des Anciens de l’Universite Catholique de Louvain”, No 9:1987, p. 239-244.

[10] P. Levy, Douze etoiles qui resteront douze „Revue mensuelle de l’Association des Amis et des Anciens de l’Universite Catholique de Louvain”, No 9:1987, p. 239-244; R. Laurentin, Le drapeau de l’Europe et la medaille de l’Immaculee, „France ctholique”, No 2189:1989, p. 28; Tenże, La Vierge Marie et l’Europe. Le secret d’un drapeau, „France ctholique”, No 2201:1989, p. 28.

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