In Catholic art and imagery how is hell symbolized? If a symbol does exist for it, why was this particular symbol chosen?
In other words, does hell have a symbol?
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In Catholic art and imagery how is hell symbolized?
In Catholic imagery hell is symbolized with the Labyrinth. The labyrinth can equally symbolize other things also.
In Greek mythology, King Minos of Crete defeated King Aegeus of Athens and threatened to destroy his country unless, every nine years, he sacrificed seven boys and seven girls to the Minotaur -- a half-man, half-bull monster -- who lived in the labyrinth in Crete. King Aegeus's son, Theseus, decided to go to the labyrinth and kill the Minotaur, releasing the captives and ending the sacrifices once and for all.
On the way to fulfill his mission, he met King Minos's daughter, Ariadne, who fell in love with him and promised to help him find his way back out of the labyrinth if he would marry her and take her back to Athens with him. She gave him a sword and a ball of thread and told him to fasten one end of thread at the labyrinth's entrance and unravel the spool behind him as he walked through to find the Minotaur and kill him with his sword. Following the thread in reverse, he'd be able to find his way out of the dark, twisting passages. Theseus did as Ariadne told him, killed the Minotaur, and followed the thread back out to safety (neither here nor there with regard to our purposes, he left Ariadne behind when he went back to Athens! (The classic-style, seven-circuit, Cretan labyrinth is shown at right.)
From 19th c. archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani's "Pagan and Christian Rome":
Theseus killing the Minotaur in the labyrinth of Crete, and labyrinths in general, were favorite subjects for church pavements, especially among the Gauls. The custom is very ancient, a labyrinth having been represented in the church of S. Vitale at Ravenna as early as the sixth century. Those of the cathedral at Lucca, of S. Michele Maggiore at Pavia, of S. Savino at Piacenza, of S. Maria in Trastevere at Rome (destroyed in the restoration of 1867), are of a later date. The image of Theseus is accompanied by a legend in the "leonine" rhythm: Theseus intravit, monstrumque biforme necavit ["Theseus entered, and killed the bi-form monster"].
The classical world's labyrinths were at first seen by Christians as metaphors for sin and the powers of Hell, as can be seen from this inscription which was originally found at the center of the Chartres labyrinth:
This stone represents the Cretan's Labyrinth. Those who enter cannot leave unless they be helped, like Theseus, by Ariadne's thread.
Though originally seen as metaphors for the dark powers of Hell and our need to rely on Our Lady to show us her Son, over time labyrinths came to be seen quite differently. During the Crusades when Christians couldn't make visits to the Holy Land, and in the same manner that the Way of the Cross devotion developed as a sort of substitute "pilgrimage" to the Holy City, labyrinths came to be used as substitute "Chemins de Jerusalem." Christians, barred from earthly Zion, would walk the labyrinths, often on their knees in penance, meditating on the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. - Labyrinths: Symbols of Hell & the Pilgrim's Way
The labyrinth can symbolize many things to the Early Christians.
Many Christian labyrinths appear relatively late in history, around the 20th century. The first labyrinth in a Christian church appeared in the forth century. When Christians could no longer make physical pilgrimages to their spiritual home in Jerusalem, they walked a symbolic pilgrimage on a labyrinth built in to the floor of the nave of a cathedral. They turned a physical journey in to a spiritual journey.
To early Christians the labyrinth symbolized many things.
§ Some thought that if they could not get to Jerusalem, they made believe that they were walking to Jerusalem on the Labyrinth.
§ Going into the labyrinth also symbolized a trip to the underworld, and the trip was a resurrection; heaven and hell are both invoked in its pattern.
§ Some thought the labyrinth to represent the soul’s journey to Christ.
One of the most famous Christian Labyrinths that is still intact is found on the floor of the Chartres cathedral in France. The circle on the floor repeats the pattern of the stained-glass circle of the western rose window. This window symbolizes heaven with Christ at the center surrounded by four rings with twelve circles in each. Twelve is the number of Apostles. When the sun hits the window, which is composed of nothing but colored lights, it cases its image down to the earth and the maze. - Labyrinth