Project Canterbury

The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments
with an Introductory Essay, Notes, and Illustrations

By John Mason Neale and Benjamin Webb.

Leeds: T.W. Green, 1843.

Chapter X.
Developement of Symbolism.

It is now our intention to attempt a brief sketch of the history of symbolism, confining ourselves to its rise, progress, and decline, in England. For of its earlier developement we have already had occasion to speak, both in the first and in the eighth chapter, when we referred to its use among the Primitive Christians, and to such particulars of information as could be gained concerning it from the later Fathers, and from mediaeval authors.

Among all nations, the facts of Christianity have been received before its doctrines. The inhabitants of a heathen country are first called on to believe, as matter of history, that our Blessed LORD was conceived by the HOLY GHOST, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, before any attempt is made to set before them the doctrine of the Atonement, the Mystery of the TRINITY, or the compatibility of GOD'S foreknowledge with man's free action. And it is in the infancy of individuals, as in that of nations. We may therefore, from all analogy, conclude, that the things set forth in the earlier developement of church art, would be facts, rather than doctrines.

Now, if we look to Norman buildings, we shall find this to be the case. Excepting the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, (which after all, perhaps rather ranks, through all the stages of Christian Art, under the head of essential, than under that of intended symbolism,) we shall find an almost exclusive reference to history, in arrangements and details. That GOD was the Creator of heaven and earth, is set forth in door mouldings, and capitals, sometimes by the heavenly constellations or signs of the Zodiac, sometimes by the animals brought to Adam to be named, sometimes by the references to agriculture, which, as we have before seen, often occur. The Incarnation of our SAVIOUR is set forth, as it has been already hinted, by representations so physical and earthly, as to be to our eyes almost profane. The Fall of Man, which appears on the sides of Fonts, well reminds us of that stain which must be washed away in Holy Baptism. A great many of the events of our LORD'S Life are sculptured in various positions: above all, of course, His Passion. Again, duties are symbolically represented, so in the Chancel Arch of Egleton, Rutland, we have the figure of a Deacon ringing a bell; doubtless to remind the worshippers of the duty of attending GOD'S house. And a still more practical method of representing the evil consequences attending the breach of duty, and one which speaks much of the rudeness of the age, is where some local event well known at the time of the erection of the church, finds a commemoration in it. Thus, (though at a later epoch) among the capitals of the South transept of Wells Cathedral, the architect has represented a theft, which doubtless, at the time, had made considerable noise in that place. In the first group, a man is seen stealing apples: then follows the struggle and apprehension: finally, his trial and condemnation. And such practical admonitions might not have been without their use. Sometimes they are refined and exalted into such an one as may be seen in the Northern apse of S. Mary's, at Guildford, where heavenly and earthly judgement are pourtrayed. Victory over the Devil is singularly enough symbolized in Oxford, S. Peter's, by the piers which rest on, and crush, a monster. We have before noticed that Norman architecture, true to its love of facts, delighted in the representation of instruments of martyrdom, or the deeds of Faith, as the victory of S. George. The Final Doom was also a favourite subject; so was the descent of CHRIST into hell. In fact, its whole character, whether in stringcourses, tympana, capitals, or chancel arches, was graphicalness, and that obtained sometimes at the expense of grace, sometimes almost at that of decorum, but probably well adapted to the particular developement which the minds of the people had then reached. One point we must remark, to the eternal honour of the Anglo-Norman, and indeed also of the Saxon Church Deadly as was the hatred existing between the two peoples, for at least a hundred and fifty years after the Conquest, it has left no symbolical trace, either in the churches of the vanquishers, or of the vanquished. Much as the one had suffered, and much as the other despised the conquered nation, this feeling vanished in the House of GOD.

In advancing to Early-English, we still find strong traces of the historicalism of ornaments, both in some of the mouldings, as in the toothed, and in the capitals, though the latter begin now to assume a more allegorical form. Indeed, the observation seems worth making, that this style is the only one which appears to have dealt much in allegory, we mean in that sense which we have already attached to the word. That is, it employs fictitious representations, to set forth real truths; as in Wells Cathedral, the fall of the barren tree forms a beautiful corbel. We do however find some traces of this in Norman work, as the fable of the Crow and the Fox may occasionally be discovered in it. The works of the Creation were often set forth, rather with reference to their beauty than from any other reasons. Such as the birds making their nests in the thick foliage, flowers, and fruit. Yet, on the whole, facts such as those which principally occupied the attention of Norman architects, began rather to find expression among the details, than to usurp any important part in church arrangement. We are in possession of too little wood work of this date,--and in that many references of this kind were probably to be found,--to be able to speak with so much certainty as we can in the later styles: but that this was the tendency of the progress of architecture, it requires but little knowledge to discover. Impressed, but evidently, now, not only essentially but intentionally, on every building, was the doctrine of the Ever Blessed TRINITY: for triplets were so common at the East end as to form the rule of Early-English design. Fonts, instead of bearing a representation of the Fall of Man, and thereby implying our need of regeneration, began to be octagonal, thereby setting forth the doctrine itself, a strong confirmation of our previous observation respecting facts and doctrines. The shape of piers is also to be noticed. For there appears to have been almost a rule, either that the octagonal and circular shape should alternate; or that one Aisle should present the one kind, the other the other. This we can hardly, in our present state of knowledge, profess to explain. Durandus's observations about windows, their splay and shafts are very curious: and again, he evidently recognises in the tiebeams, the knitting together of the elect in one Communion and Fellowship: a strong argument, this, that we are justified in regarding arrangements, which arise from mechanical necessity, as nevertheless, truly and really symbolical. In the bases of Piers we now often find flowers, which indeed, sometimes, as in Rochester Cathedral, occur in transition work; principally the fleur de lys, which we may interpret to signify that humility is the foundation of all Christian graces.

On the whole, however, we conclude that in this style, while churches taken as a whole became more symbolical, their details, as details, became less so.

In proceeding to the next developement of Catholick art, we are almost afraid of expressing a belief, that Decorated, in its early dawn, gave promise of a brighter day than it ever reached. It had not shewn its wonderful resources and capabilities in windows and flying buttresses, before the boldness of its capitals and bases began to decline. We can imagine that, had it so been ordered, Christian architecture might, about the year 1300, have taken a different direction, and attained to a glory, inconceivable to us,--perhaps attainable only when the whole Catholick Church shall be at unity. As it is, we cannot but consider, that about that period, or a few years later, it took a wrong turn, and being hurried in a short space through the hectick of a rare flush of beauty, declined thenceforward slowly but surely. Now, if we ask, why was this? it will lead us to look at Church history as connected with the developement of Church architecture. Contemporary with the change from Saxon to Norman, (for we are none of those who hold that the former extended till Oct. 14, 1065, and the latter began the next day,) was finally the victory of the Anglican Church over Paganism in the conversion and civilization of the Danes. Contemporary with the appearance of Early-English, was the great victory of the Church over Erastianism, by the Martyrdom of S. Thomas of Canterbury, and the Abrogation of the Constitutions of Clarendon. But, hardly had Early-English finished its course of splendour, when while traces, of rare glory were developing daily, the Statute of Mortmain began to tell upon the Church.: and though the impulse already given yet continued for some time to act, the end was near. No magnificent Cathedral was built after the full effects,--not so much of that act, as of the Erastianism which contrived and allowed it,--were felt. The Nave of Winchester can hardly be called a solitary exception; because, in truth, it may be doubted whether the pious exertions of William of Wykeham were not, so far as concerns the actual beauty of his Cathedral, misplaced. Thenceforward, the State interfered more and more with the Church; and not allowed to carry out Her own designs, it is no wonder if the latter quickly began to forget Her own symbolical language. After, for the first few years of the fourteenth century, using it with precision and elegance before unattainable, she thenceforward began to disuse it. We need not give examples of Decorated Symbolism, because all that was new in it lay in its windows; and these we have already discussed at considerable length. And having sufficiently explained why there should be a decline, we have only now to examine why that decline should have been so different in England, France, and Italy. In England, from the time that Edward IV. directed the execution of Archbishop Scrope, when the State interfered, it was with a strong arm, cramping and confining, obliging the Church to confine herself to ritual observances, and forbidding Her to expatiate in the grand objects for which She was ordained. Now could there be a more fitting expression of this than the Perpendicular style? Does not its stiffness, its failure in harmony, its want of power and adaptation, its continual introduction of heraldry, its monotony, its breaking up by hard continued lines, its shallowness, its meretriciousness, its display,--set forth what we know to have been the character of the contemporary Church? Above all, do not the reintroduction of horizontality, the Tudor Arch, the depressed Pier, speak of Her want of Spirituality? Every thing teaches us that there was no want of power in Her architects; considered merely as specimens of art, King's College, and Henry the Seventh's Chapels, are matchless. And here and there we may trace some tokens of vastness and holiness of conception worthy of a better age; such as the Suffolk roofs, which, as it has been well said, never attained their full developement. It must be borne in mind, that Perpendicular was the first style, which in its full developement was used first for a secular building. [We deeply regret that the Oxford Architectural Society should ever have allowed itself to put on paper the opinions expressed by one of its members, that Perpendicular windows are those best suited to the spirit of Christian Architecture.] Far be it from us, however, to depreciate the excessive magnificence it assumes in shrines and chapels: indeed, this is one of the features which Decorated has not, and the absence of which in that style renders it possible to believe that a still more magnificent may be in store for us. Perpendicular introduced no new element of symbolism.

But if this were the state of the Anglican Church, the Gallican, though not better off, was acted on in a very different manner. The State gradually interfered with it, embraced it with its dangerous friendship, made its observances meaningless, while sustaining their splendour; secularized its Abbeys, by appropriating them to political ends; made statesmen of its Bishops, gave it outside show, while eating out its heart. Does not Flamboyant express this? A vast collection of elegant forms, meaninglessly strung together: richness of ornament, actually weakening construction: vagaries of tracery, as if the hand possessed of Church Art, were suddenly deprived of Church feelings: nothing plain, simple, intelligible, holy: parts neglected, parts ostentatious: the West front of Abbeville to a choir that would disgrace a hamlet.

In Spain again, where Christianity unfolded itself later, so also was Church Art later in its developement. San Miguel, at Seville, which was actually built in 1305, would, in England, be set down to the date of about 1180.

In Italy, where there was no State to interfere with the Church, Paganism, which had always been more or less at work, sprang up at once, at the time of the Great Schism, and has ever since prevailed.

But to return to England. Perpendicular, unable to express any idea by its ornaments, soon began to imitate those of earlier styles: first Early English, in the wretched banded capitals of the Western Counties, and then Decorated in its windows. While, however, the Church was yet united with the rest of Christendom, Paganism interfered but in a very slight degree: the Italian example of Henry the Seventh's tomb was not followed. Even after the Dissolution, there were some good churches built: the symbolism which lingered longest was that of the Chancel and Nave. Nor was this destroyed summarily: the importance of the Chancel had been gradually, all through the Perpendicular era, weakened by Chancel Aisles, and the omission of the Chancel Arch: it was but to omit the Rood Screen and Parclose, and (as at Hawkshead, Lancashire, circ. 1564,) the mystical division vanished.

The symbolisms which Protestantism introduced, were few and easily understood.

The removal, and material, of the Altar, the change of vestments, the gradual introduction of close pues, the innovation of a reading pue, were all figurative enough. Something like a return to Church art was made just before the great Rebellion: Chancels became elongated, Altars resumed their old position, Copes reappeared, and the like. Details began to improve: and, (which we could hardly have expected,) intentional symbolism is sometimes to be discovered in them. So, in Baltonsburgh, Somersetshire, a stone pulpit of the date of 1621, has among other devices, an equilateral triangle, containing, and surrounded by, a tre-foil: and evidently setting forth the HOLY TRINITY. After the Rebellion, but still more after the Revolution, those faint traces of symbolism died away into that ne plus ultra of wretchedness, the Georgian style.

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