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What a sign signals

10 November 2017

At Remembrance-tide, Ted Harrison explores the religious origins of the swastika

Peter Schickert/imageBROKER/SuperStock

Wheel of fortune? Swastika relief in the Badami cave temple complex, India, dating from the late sixth century

Wheel of fortune? Swastika relief in the Badami cave temple complex, India, dating from the late sixth century

THE red poppy of Remembrance is a powerful symbol to which, increasingly, people are responding in different ways. To some, it tells of pride in the nation and the heroism of the armed forces; for others, it is a sign of sorrow, worn as a pledge to work harder for peace in the world.

The emotive power of symbols has long been understood. Some send out an undeniable message of good; others are seen as pure evil — none more so than the swastika. It is now so synonymous with the Nazis that its original religious significance has been largely forgotten.

“Have you seen the splendid example of a swastika in the transept?” is not often heard by visitors on guided church tours, but in fact the motif can be found in many churches. It may appear in carvings, on tiles or memorial brasses, and sometimes even vestments. At St Mary the Virgin, Great Canfield, in Essex, for instance, there are five swastikas in the stonework of the porch. At St Michael’s, Garway, in Herefordshire, the motif can be found on the exterior south wall; and at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Cambridge, it appears in a window.


IN A church context, the design is more correctly called the fylfot cross, and all examples pre-date Nazism by many years. The term is said to have evolved from Anglo-Saxon times, and may mean four-footed cross. It became a symbol of hate and evil only in the 20th century when, as the swastika, it was misappropriated by the Nazis as their logo of power. The symbol had been found on ancient German pottery, and Hitler believed that the crooked cross (the Hakenkreuz) had had religious significance for the German people’s Aryan ancestors.

In his 2003 monograph on the Great Canfield cross, the Revd Stephen Taylor describes how the fylfot cross has been around since the early Christian era, becoming especially widespread in medieval times. It came to be associated with Christ and the four Evangelists, and a link was made with St Francis of Assisi when it was said to represent the five wounds of Christ and St Francis’s stigmata.

The mitre worn by Thomas Becket was reportedly decorated with a fylfot cross motif, and when, in the late 1960s, the tombs in York Minster of two 13th-century archbishops were restored, fragments of cloth were found in them which carried the design.

There are fylfot crosses in the Lindisfarne Gospels, and a version of the same in the Book of Kells. The centre of the traditional cross of St Helena, which incorporates a swastika shape, appears on the coat of arms of Colchester, the saint being thought to be a daughter of the town.


THE design is frequently found in the art of other faiths, notably Hinduism and Buddhism in the east. The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being”, and the Hindu version of the fylfot cross is said to symbolise peace and good luck. It is one of the oldest symbols made by humans, found in rock and cave paintings that date back some 6000 years.

According to The Times of India, scholars generally agree that the symbol is of Indian origin. The paper (5 January 2005) quotes the Indian astrologer Sunita Chabra as saying that the the right-handed swastika signifies the dharmas — the Eastern teaching on life, permanence, and order — while the left-handed, anti-clockwise swastika is the destructive version. The sign can be found in many images of the Buddha on his chest, palms, and the soles of his feet.

Despite its ancient and rooted position in Christian and Eastern religious traditions, when the simple motif was purloined by 20th-century right-wing extremists it rapidly became a symbol of fear and loathing. Half a century later, the reputation of the fylfot cross has not been restored.


THE power of a few simple lines and shapes to trigger the deepest of emotions is extraordinary. Advertisers know the value of familiar logos on their products. It is almost impossible, nowadays, to buy articles of clothing on which a brand identity label is not prominently displayed.

Researchers into child development have noted that, well before they can read, children in the West can associate logos with their favourite brands. They recognise the big yellow McDonald’s “M” long before they can recite their ABC.

The capacity of an easily recognised graphic motif to sum up a world of meaning has long been acknowledged. In Man and his Symbols, Carl Jung wrote: “As the mind explores the symbol it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason. . . Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbols to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend. This is one reason why all religions employ symbolic language or images.”

Over time, a motif can become so familiar and so established in its meaning that artists can start to experiment with its design. The basis of much Islamic art consists of taking sacred words in Arabic script and decorating them to make beautiful images in their own right, which still remain instantly recognisable.

Similarly, the simple two-line Christian cross has taken on many artistic forms. The Canterbury cross, the Celtic cross, the Templar version, and many others are stylistically distinct but, nevertheless, instantly identifiable as a cross.


IT IS possible for the meaning of a logo to change. The cross was transformed from being a shorthand representation of a brutal means of execution into a new symbol representing quite the opposite: the supreme sacrifice, and the ultimate good.

Its artistic offspring, the fylfot cross, changed radically in meaning when it was usurped by Hitler and the Nazis. But a motif or logo does not contain meaning within itself: its potency lies in the human response that it provokes. That response can differ from one person or culture to the next. The star of David is a proud sign of Jewish identity; but to many Palestinians it has come to be the badge of their oppressors.

The poppy of Remembrance, too, prompts a range of reactions. The context in which it is worn matters, as do its colour and size. A red poppy worn alongside medals will evoke a different response from a white poppy worn alongside a CND badge.

Even the most familiar Christian symbol of all, the cross, provokes responses from Christians on a spectrum from devotion to suspicion. Making the sign of the cross is, for some, an act of prayer, but, to 17th-century Puritans, representations of the cross were tantamount to breaches of the second commandment.

What matters most is not the symbol itself, but the way in which we respond to it.


Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs corres­pondent.

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