Wednesday, March 22, 2017

About Christian Symbolism

Two peacocks, symbolizing paradise and immortality,
 on a fragment from an eighth century ciborium from a
church in Italy
       Symbols or emblems are by no means all of one sort, but are more or less clearly to be classified under distinct headings.
       Some are purely symbolical or allegorical: the pelican, or the phoenix, or the pomegranate, if taken as emblems of the LORD, are simply so taken as figuring some qualities recognized by the faithful as pertaining to Christ.
       So with some of the saintly emblems : the burning heart of S. Augustine, or the beehive of S. Ambrose, and the two pillars of S. Athanasius, these figure not the deeds but the character of those signified.
      Others are doctrinal: the Divine Hand, the interlaced triangles, or the shield of the Trinity, or the IX0Y2 (Greek letters), for instance. These convey to us the faith of the Church.
       Again, there are those purely metaphorical. We show our LORD as the Good Shepherd, because He said, "I am the Shepherd; "or as a rose, since He said, "I am the Rose;" or the Agnus Dei, because the Baptist said, " Behold the Lamb of GOD."
       Then there is a very large class formed by such emblems as are intended to be distinctly historical. Such are the saltire of S. Andrew, the wheel of S. Catharine, and the many other tokens of the sufferings of the saints. So the emblems of the Passion and the whole heraldry of the Cross fall under the same classification.
       There are, too, emblems official: the mitre, the Papal tiara, the helmet, the staff, the cope, the dalmatic, and a score of other badges of office are attributed to those who probably never wore the things at all, and certainly did not do so in the form portrayed. The first martyr, S. Stephen, did not wear a dalmatic with an appareled alb; nor did S. Peter ever see a tiara or a patriarchal cross. But what can we do, save use the " signs of the times " we are working in, and be therewith content ? I don't for a moment suppose, when designing an Athanasius, in a fifteenth century cope, with a legend in black letter, and a shaven face, surmounted by a jeweled mitre, that he ever looked a bit like that. But he does look like a bishop of the Catholic Church, and he fits in with his English surroundings when so depicted.
       If realism be insisted upon, scarcely any representation will be possible; since we cannot be sure of the shape and pattern, the color of the clothing: still less of the features, the beard, and hair of any early saint. Realism, too, would prohibit the attempt to show the sacred hierarchy of heaven, and we can only credit the angels, in their orders and courses, with the emblems, by common consent appropriate to their names and dignities.
       Other emblems are representative, not of the saints, but of their work or trade: the shoes of S. Crispin or the tent-maker's tools of Priscilla show their handicraft; while the fetters of S. Leonard show, not his own chains, but those worn by the recipients of his goodness.
       The next class would be described by heralds as canting. This unsavory word, however, is not meant (even heraldically) in an invidious sense. Arms are called "canting," or parlant, when they form a rebus, or a play upon a name. A bolt in a tun for " Bolton," a man in a tree for " Manningtree," are, without question, of the same sort as S. Agnes' lamb, S. Cornelius' horn, and S. Sidwell's scythe.
       What to say of S. Christopher I know not. Tradition says that he was a heathen giant Offero, but having "carried Christ " he became Christo-pher, and is so represented. Either the name gave the legend, or the legend the name who can say ?
       A last division may, perchance, be called traditional, in its modern and false sense, i.e., something carried on from nowhere! It would seem that there is neither rhyme nor reason for a large number of such emblems, save the individual fancy of some unknown artist, whom others followed blindly.
       Books, which the holders never wrote, and probably never read, are, of course, merely vague and uncertain. But why S. John of Ely should have a sun and moon is more than one can tell. Certain it is that license has been freely taken in this direction, and perchance it may be extended even to us, if we
only avail ourselves of it when all else fails. Geldart

No comments:

Post a Comment

Constructive comments are appreciated. All comments are moderated and do not immediately appear after publishing. Thanks and have a nice day!