I. Symbology and terminology – II. Iconography. I. Symbology and terminology. The oldest Jewish literature speaks of the crown, initially probably in connection with the feast of tabernacles as a sign of dominion and power, then used in symbolic language about the Messiah: the crown symbolized the future earthly messianic kingdom and its glory. In Jewish apocalyptic literature the crown is not used in reference to the messianic kingdom but as a religious symbol of participation in the eschatological kingdom and its glory: the crown is granted to the just as a reward. In contrast, in Hellenistic culture the crown ste,fanoj was a prize that exalted the earthly glory obtained through victory in battle or in an athletic contest. At Olympia, victors received a crown of olive branches as sign of triumph; the crown at Delphi was interwoven with laurel leaves; at Nemea, with celery leaves, and on the Isthmus, initially with pine leaves and later with fresh celery. Later, the Roman army rewarded its victorious heroes with the glory of the laurel wreath.
The Jewish literature of the Hellenistic and Roman period was influenced by this competitive notion of the crown. Philo of Alexandria prized virtue as a “holy” crown Agriculture 112-119, since it is a “crown which is the vision of God” Praem. et poen. 27. The fourth book of Maccabees applies agonistic terminology to martyrdom: “The fear of God crowned his athletes,” since “the prize was incorruptibility” 4 Macc 17:11-15. The Pauline epistles take up this Judeo-Hellenistic idea of the crown: “Do you not know that in the races at the stadium, all run, but only one wins the prize? So, you also, run so as to win! But every athlete is temperate in everything; they do this to obtain a corruptible crown, but we, an incorruptible one” 1 Cor 9:24-25. “In the athletic contests, one is not crowned who has not fought according to the rules” 2 Tim 2:5. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my race, I have preserved my faith.
Now all that remains for me is the crown of justice that the Lord, the just judge, will give me on that day” 2 Tim 4:7-8. The fight to keep one’s faith is rewarded by the Lord. Like 2 Timothy, the Apocalypse presents the virtue of faithfulness as a prerequisite for being crowned: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” Rev 2:10. Likewise: “You will receive the crown of glory that does not fade” 1 Pet 5:4. The Hellenistic Jewish and NT texts show clearly how the crowning after an athletic contest inspired metaphors applied to the spiritual victory of virtue justice, faithfulness, leading to eternal life. This also explains the passage from the earthly crown of athletic and military victory to the crown of the martyrs, soldiers of Christ.
Three reasons contributed to this transformation. The first and most important was rooted in the symbolic strength of the crown: as a symbol of victory in the persecutions, the crown was apt for characterizing what Christians considered the highest victory, i.e., death by martyrdom; indeed, Tertullian says explicitly: “Persecution can be seen as a battle” De fuga 1,5. The second reason was that the crown of victory is simultaneously the prize of eternal glory and, in this sense, a direct analogy with the Jewish idea of victory. The third reason, somewhat external, was the concrete circumstance that many Christians suffered martyrdom precisely on a field of contest circus, amphitheater etc.. The crown of martyrdom symbolized the highest Christian victory and expressed the heavenly prize granted to the martyr immediately upon death. As such, this crown is a sign of heavenly glory and is opposed to human fame; the dual function of the crown sign of victory and expression of reward refers to a double meaning, earthly and transcendent. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the “crown of incorruptibility” Mart. Pol. 19,2 symbolizes not so much the earthly victory of the martyr as the heavenly prize. In contrast, twenty years later the Martyrdom of the Martyrs of Vienne and Lyons stresses the earthly victory of the martyrial struggle. Thus, already at the beginnings of Christian martyrial literature 2nd c., the two aspects of the corona martyrum were appreciated, though they quickly developed in very distinct ways.