What are the symbols of St. Peter, the Apostle?

A Pair of Overlapping Keys. The keys represent Peter’s authority as the leader of the twelve apostles and the head of the early Church. After Peter made his profession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of the living God (Mt 16:16), Jesus said, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). Often one key is gold, the other silver, the first which represents the power to bind and loose in heaven, spiritual authority; while the second represents the power to bind and loose on earth, temporal authority. The keys also represent the authority to absolve sins, or in extreme cases when sins are not loosed, to excommunicate.

A Shepherd’s Staff represents Peter’s role as chief shepherd of Jesus’ flock. Jesus is the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11,14), and standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee after the resurrection, Jesus commissioned Peter to continued his shepherding ministry when he instructed him: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep” (Jn 21:15,16,17).

An Upside-Down Cross represents the type of cross upon which Peter was martyred during the persecution of the emperor Nero (64-68 AD). According to tradition, Peter said that he was unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Master, and asked to be crucified in a different way, and his executioners granted his request.

A Cock or Rooster Crowing represents Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard (Mt 26:74; Mk 14:72; Lk 22:60; Jn 18:27).

Other Symbols. Peter is also represented by a rock jutting out from the sea, because Peter is the rock upon which the church is built (Mt 16:18); a fishing net, because Jesus called Peter to be a fisher of men (Lk 5:10); a boat, because a boat is a symbol for the Church (Mt 8:23-27) and Peter is at the helm (Mt 14:32); a rolled up scroll or book, because two letters are attributed to Peter (1 and 2 Pt), he is the source for Mark’s gospel, and he preached God’s word (Acts); a chair, because Jesus prayed that Peter would unify the Church by the way that he strengthened his brothers (Lk 22:32); chains, because when Peter was imprisoned, an angel set him free by loosening his chains (Acts 12:6-7); the Vatican basilica, because it is named San Pietro; the Papal tiara, because papal authority began with Peter; and the Papal or three-bar cross, because it is the symbol of the office that Peter first held.

Combination Symbols. Peter is frequently represented by an upside-down cross or the three-bar cross with a pair of keys either overlapping or side-by-side.

About Father Michael Van Sloun 

Father Michael Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Wayzata, Minn. As a former school principal, high school instructor and athletic coach, he has always been a teacher. He now teaches the faith as a homilist, Bible study leader, retreat director, pilgrimage guide and author of numerous articles.

© 2008, Rev. Michael A. Van Sloun
Used with permission.