Skip to content

Advent Calendar Day 4: What is the spiritual symbolism of candle?

We light candles in memorial of desaparecidos, AIDS victims, and practically during blackouts brought about by typhoons and other disasters. But what is the spiritual symbolism of candle?
Romeo Tabuena. Candle Vendors (1951). Oil on wood. Lopez Museum Collection
Candle is widely used as a symbol in the ritual, especially funerary, of many religions. It is less often encountered in art, except Christian. Usually carried in scene of the Presentation in the Temple, which is commemorated in the Feast of Candlemass and which includes, in the West, a procession of lighted candles. Candles in general denote Christ as “the light of the world” (John 8:12), and also the “burnt offerings” of past sacrifices. During the office of Tenebrae (darkness) in Holy Week, a frame holding fifteen lighted candles is placed before the altar. They are extinguished one by one, the last symbolizing the death of Christ. FAITH and CHARITY personified hold a candle. In Vanitas paintings a lighted candle signifies the brevity of life (Vanitas denotes emptiness, or the transient nature of earthly possessions). A candle is the attribute of SS. Bridget of Sweden, Genevieve, Donatian and the Libyan Sibyl; a pair of crossed candles, of Blaise.
Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art by James Hall. 
Sacred Origins of Profound Things: The Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World’s Religions by Charles Panati