Version française de cette page

Church symbolism

 

 

If it is true that modern people are convinced by rational and logical arguments, medieval men engaged spiritual reality through the imagination and the arts, using images, comparisons and symbols.

A symbol is a visible or perceptible reality that "represents" (i.e. makes present) another reality that is less visible, less perceptible and, generally more spiritual or loftier and with which there is some natural analogic correspondence.

At the same time, medieval churches (and certainly cathedrals first of all, but also parish churches) expressed and reflected medieval ideas of the world as the Lord's creation. Every church was thought to be the house of God and also the picture of Heavenly Jerusalem, described in John's Apocalypse.

Let us quote a few lines from the Apocalypse to begin with:

"The throne of God will be in the City." (22,3)
The church rises high above the other buildings. It is geographically and architecturally the centre of the community and every other institution is secondary.

 

1


"The wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb." (21,14)
From the 13th century onward, it was not unusual to place statues of the apostles against the pillars, thus recalling the Apocalypse and also Saint Paul.

2


"The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The wall is adorned with every jewel." (21,19)
The huge stained glass windows of all gothic churches are the equivalent of those jewels. It should be remembered that glass was fabulously costly until the 16th century, only the wealthiest could afford glazed window in their homes. It therefore goes without saying that church windows were luxury items almost as expensive as jewels.
3

"The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps. And they sing a new song before the throne." (14,2 and 3)

Musician angels are found in every 15th century church. Several representations can be seen in the local church.
More about musician angels

4

 

Everything in the building could be interpreted in terms of symbols (Obviously this is no longer true as restoration work, improvements, new buildings, etc... have altered the original plans). Moreover although we, modern people, have lost that sense of symbolism to a large extent; a number of symbols can nonetheless still be deciphered in a church.

Let us consider a few :

First, orientation:
To begin with, the church was "oriented", i.e. the choir containing the main altar points (more or less accurately) towards to the East (towards Jerusalem originally). It is immaterial to discuss whether this is a form of persisting pagan sun-worship or if it can be traced to the influence of emperor Constantine, but the practice lasted on throughout the Middle Ages.

Oriented towards the rising sun, this window illustrates a verse of the Gospel according to St John: 'I am the light of the world'. The radiating red and yellow colours of this window lit by the rising sun are particularly beautiful

 

 

5

 

The great porch at the western end, on the other hand, faces the setting sun and lead men's thoughts to the close of life. (This is why many churches display magnificent sculptures of the Last Judgment around the West porch.)

 

Then the ground plan of the building:
Medieval architects and designers follow the apostle Paul's teaching that the 'ekklesia' is like a body - a human body and the most learned ones also remember the Roman architect Vitruvius who advocated the same building principle. But at the same time Christian life had to be ordered around the person and work of Jesus so that churches - except the smaller ones- were built in the shape of a cross. Thus the nave symbolises the body and legs of Christon the Cross, the transept His extended arms and the choir His head. In some cases, the likeliness has gone so far as to build the choir slightly off-axis so as to evoke the tilted head of Christ dead on the Cross.
In Vernon, the ground plan of a cross is not easy to read since the arms of the transept do not protrude outside, but the shape of a cross is still there all the same.

 

Vertical organisation of a church: nave, spire or tower and crypt
Most large churches are built over crypts, while all of them have towers, spires or steeples. These three divisions were interpreted in a symbolic way: in the Middle Ages theologians used to see three divisions to the Christian Church. The "Church Triumphant" (the saints who are already in Heaven because of their righteous lives), the "Church Militant" (those of us who are still living on earth), and the "Church Suffering" (those who have not been righteous enough to go straight to Heaven at death but are still in Purgatory until they can be cleansed of their sins).

 

 

Quite logically, these three Churches were embodied in the towers and steeples that rise toward heaven suggesting the "Church Triumphant. The ground level of the fabric was the present "Church Militant" (those people warring against sin in their everyday life). Also, the Crypt was equalled to the "Church Suffering" (or Purgatory).

6

 

The tower that reaches toward Heaven


The three-story elevation of the nave:

The hierarchy of the three-level construction of the inner space (lower arches, triforium and upper windows) corresponded with the hierarchy in society ( the three orders, viz. clerics, knights and working men, likened also to the hierarchy of the heavenly dwellings as shown in illuminated manuscripts. (Think of the seven celestial spheres, the three-tier hierarchy of angels, etc.).

 

7

Numbers:

In all this, the mystical interpretation of numbers holds a great place. There were twelve apostles, so every time this is technically possible, the choir is enclosed by twelve piers, cathedrals have three main doors, precisely the number of the Blessed Trinity. Siix denotes perfection and completion (it is a perfect number since it is equal to the sum of its divisors, 1, 2, 3.). In this way the hexagonal (sometimes octagonal) shape was judged specially appropriate for baptismal fonts. Naturally, five recalls the wounds of Christ, while ten, the number of the Commandments, is typical of the Old Law, etc.

Hexagonal 15th century baptismal font 8

The Rosary window 9

This symbolism has been preserved in this modern window of the Rosary. This abstract window evokes the fifteen ( = 3*5!) Rosary-corresponding Mysteries of the life of Christ. Each Mystery is meditated by reciting a part of the Rosary (ten 'Ave Maria') symbolised on the window by a cluster of ten dots.
* at the bottom: the five joyous mysteries (yellow overtones);
* in the middle : the five sorrowful mysteries (grey overtones);
* above: the five glorious mysteries (blue overtones).
At the very top, rose petals representing prayers to the Virgin since it was customary in the Middle Ages to crown the Virgin's statues with roses, each rose symbolising a prayer.)

.Other symbols
For some medieval divines every detail in the construction of the church, even the minutest one, had a special significance: for instance, the roof represents charity which covers a multitude of sins, the vaulting signifies the preachers who bear up the dead weight of man's infirmity heavenwards; the columns and piers stand for the Apostles, bishops, and doctors; the pavement symbolises the foundation of faith or the humility of the poor; and so on.

Another symbol can be found in the rose of the Our Lady Collegiate church in Vernon: the rose itself is enclosed in a square. "The spiritual lesson is clear," writes Barron, an American theologian. ." The perfect circle in the midst of the square symbolises the Incarnation, the Word become flesh and the perfection of the Son of God."

 

 

10

Obviously such symbolism - sometimes far-fetched and perhaps excessive - remained outside the comprehension of almost everyone. Other symbols, especially those related to saints, were certainly familiar to many people: every saint had an emblem or a symbol which characterised the particular saint, such as the scallop shell of St James, the cross of St Andrew or the wheel of St Catherine of Alexandria.


St Catherine of Alexandria
11

Detail from Saint Domenico receiving the Rosary from Saint Ann 12

Consider Claude Vignon's painting in the church (Saint Domenico receiving the Rosary from Saint Ann). it was painted in the 17th century, a time when symbolism was no longer a living force and yet, at the bottom, one can see a white lily (the symbol of purity), a burning torch ( the torch of truth) and a dog. The latter could be the symbol of faithfulness, but it happens that the dog has a special symbolic meaning in connection with Saint Domenico. As a matter of fact, the animal illustrates a pun: Dominican monks are called 'Dominicani' in Latin. Spelt in two words (Domini / cani) this means 'the dog of the Lord', and this is why Pope Honorius III remarked that Domenico and his monks would be" the watch-dogs of the Lord"; hence painters often depicted a small dog near the saint.


A few specialised pages for amateurs and others...

Church symbolism this page

 

Genesis of Gothic architecture:

A few ways to give a Gothic building a date.

'Flamboyant' gothic

Why is it called 'Gothic'?

 

Copyright 2005

Back to 'Inside' page