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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 II.
The Argument a Priori.

IT will first be proper to consider whether, regarding the subject a priori, that is, looking at the habits and manners of those among whom the symbolical system originated, if it originated anywhere, we have reason to think them at all likely to induce that system. Now, as matter of fact, we know that the train of thought, the every-day observances, above all, the religious rites of the early Christians, were in the highest degree figurative. The rite of Baptism gave the most forcible of all sanctions to such a system; and while it sanctioned, it also suggested, some of the earliest specimens of Christian symbolism. 'Hence, when that rite was found to be, so to speak, connected with the word formed by the initial letters of our Blessed SAVIOUR'S name and titles, arose the Mystick Fish: hence, as we shall see, the octagonal Baptistery and Font. Indeed, almost every great doctrine had been symbolized at a very early period of Christianity. The Resurrection was set forth in the Phoenix, rising immortal from its ashes: the meritorious Passion of our SAVIOUR, by the Pelican, feeding its young with its own blood: the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, by grapes and wheat-ears, or again by the blood flowing from the heart and feet of the Wounded Lamb into a chalice beneath: the Christian's renewal of strength thereby in the Eagle, which descending grey and aged into the ocean, rises thence with renewed strength and vigour: the Church, by the Ark, and the vessel in which our LORD slept: [Naviculum quippe ecclesiam cogitate,--turbulentum mare hoc seculum.--S. Aug. de Verb. Dom.] the Christian's purity and innocence by the Dove: [Quaeque super signum resident coeleste Columbae, / Simplicibus produnt regna patere DEI. S. Paulin. ep. 12, ad Sever.] again, by the same symbol, the souls of those who suffered for the Truth: [Cum nollet idolis sacrificare [sc. S. Reparata] ecce, gladio percutitur: cujus anima in Columbae specie de corpore egredi, coelumque conscendere visa est.--Martyrol. Rom. viii. Id. Oct. Emicat inde Columba repens, / Martyris os nive candidior / Visa relinquere, et astra sequi: / Spiritus hic erat Eulaliae / Lacteolus, celer, innocuus.--Pruden. Perist. Hymn. 9. Compare also the Passion of S. Potitus,--Act. SS. Bollandi, 13 Jan. So, in the cemetery of S. Calistus, a piece of glass was found by Boldetti, on which S. Agnes was represented between two doves, the symbols of her Virginity and Martyrdom.] again, though perhaps not so early, the HOLY SPIRIT: the Apostles were also set forth as twelve Doves: [Crucem corona lucido cingit globo, Cui coronae sunt corona Apostoli, Quorum figura est in columbarum choro. (St. Paul in Eph.)] the Ascension of our SAVIOUR by the Flying Bird; concerning which S. Gregory teaches, "rightly is our REDEEMER called a Bird, Whose Body ascended freely into heaven:" [In Evang. 29.] Martyrs also by birds let loose; for so Tertullian, "There is one kind of flesh of fishes, that is of those who be regenerate by Holy Baptism; but another of birds, that is of martyrs." [De Resurrect. 52.] The caged bird is symbolical of the contrary; this has been found upon the phial containing the blood of a martyr. Of this, Boldetti says, "It is represented on the mosaick of the ancient Tribune of S. Mary beyond Tiber; one being seen at the side of Isaiah the Prophet, the other at that of the Prophet Jeremiah." In the same way, partridges and peacocks, each with its own meaning, are represented. So, again, lions, tigers, horses, oxen, strange fishes, and marine monsters, represent the fearful martyrdoms to which GOD'S servants were exposed: a point which the reader will do well to bear in mind, because in treating of Norman mouldings we shall have occasion again to refer to this matter. So, again, the extended hand symbolised Providence. We have also the seven stars, the moon, and many other symbols of a similar kind. Nor must we forget the Agnus Dei, by which our Blessed LORD Himself was represented; nor the Pastor Bonus, in which His own parable was still further parabolized. The Christian gems found in the Catacombs are all charged with some symbolical device. Upon these is the ship for the Church, the palm for the martyr, and the instrument of torture: as well as the sacred monogram expressing our SAVIOUR'S name. The same symbol blazed on the labarum, of the first Christian Emperor; and the very coins symbolically shewed that the Church had subdued the kingdoms of this world. That fearful heresy, Gnosticism, which arose from an over-symbolizing, shews, nevertheless, how deeply the principle, within due limits, belonged to the Church. The Gnostick gems exhibit the most monstrous perversions of symbolical representations: the medals of Dioclesian bear a lying symbol of a crushed and expiring Christianity. Later still, new symbols were adopted: mosaicks, illuminations, ornaments, all bore some holy emblems. The monogram IHS is found in every Church in Western Christendom: the corresponding symbol stamps the Eucharistick wafers of the East. [See on this subject the Cambridge Camden Society's "Argument for the Greek Origin of the Monogram IHS."]

The symbols of the Evangelists were also of very early date, though not, in all cases, appropriated as now: for the angel and the lion fluctuated between S. Matthew and S. Mark. Numbers, too, were fruitful of allegorical meaning; and the most ingenious combinations were used to elicit an esoterick meaning from them. By one, the Unity of the Deity was understood: by two, the divine and human Natures of the SAVIOUR: by three, of course, the doctrine of the MOST HOLY TRINITY: by four, the doctrine of the Four Evangelists: by six, the Attributes of the Deity: seven represented the sevenfold graces of the HOLY SPIRIT: eight, (for a reason hereafter to be noticed,) Regeneration: twelve, the glorious company the Apostles, and, tropologically, the whole Church. And when a straightforward reference to any of these failed, they were added or combined, till the required meaning was obtained. A single instance may suffice:--S. Augustine, writing on that passage of S. Paul's, "What? know ye not that the saints shall judge the world?" after explaining (Expos. super Psalm. lxxxvi.) the twelve thrones, which our SAVIOUR mentions, of the whole Church, as founded by and represented in the Apostles, finds a further meaning. "The parts of the world be four; the east, the west, the north, and the south:" and (adds the Father) "they are constantly named in Holy Writ. From these four winds, saith the LORD in the Gospel, shall the elect be gathered together: whence the Church is called from these four parts. Called, and how? By the TRINITY. It is not called, except by Baptism, in the name of the FATHER, and of the SON, and of the HOLY GHOST. So "four, multiplied by three, make twelve." In accidental numbers, too, a meaning was often found. No wonder that some beheld, in the three hundred and eighteen trained servants wherewith Abraham, the Father of the Faithful, routed the combined kings, a type of the three hundred and eighteen Fathers of Nicaea, by whom the Faithful rose triumphant over the Arian heresy.

Again, types and emblems without number were seen in the language of the Psalmist, occuring so continuously in the Services of the Church. 'His faithfulness shall be thy buckler,' gives rise to a fine allegory of S. Bernard's, drawn from the triangular shape of the buckler used at the time when that Father wrote; even as we still see it, in the effigies of early Knights. It protects the upper part of the body completely: the feet are less completely shielded. And so, remarks the Saint, does GOD'S Providence guard His people from spiritual dangers, imaged by those weapons which attack the upper, or more vital parts of the body: but from temporal adversities He hath neither promised, nor will give so complete protection.

To mention the symbolism which attached itself to the worship of the Early Church, would be to go through all its rites. Confirmation and Matrimony, and above all, Baptism, were attended by ceremonies in the highest degree symbolical. But it is needless to dwell on them; enough has been said to prove the attachment which the Catholick Church has ever evinced to symbolism.

But the sign of the Cross is that which gave the greatest scope to symbolism.--Our readers will probably remember the passage of Tertullian in which he says, ' we cross ourselves when we go out, and when we come in; when we lie down, and when we rise up, &c. Indeed, as in every thing they used, so in every thing they saw, the Sign of the Cross. The following lines from Donne are much to the purpose:

Since CHRIST embraced the Cross itself, dare I
His Image, th' Image of His Cross, deny?
Would I hare profit by the Sacrifice,
And dare the chosen Altar to despise?
It bore all other sins, but is it fit
That it should bear the sin of scorning it?
Who from the picture would avert his eye,
How should he fly His pains, Who there did die?
From me no pulpit, nor misgrounded law,
Nor scandal taken, shall this Cross withdraw:
It shall not,--nor it cannot,--for the loss
Of this Cross were to me another Cross:
Better were worse: for no affliction,
No cross were so extreme, as to have none.
Who can blot out the Cross, which th' instrument
Of GOD dewed on him in the Sacrament?
Who can deny me power and liberty
To stretch mine arms, and mine own Cross to be?
Swim,--and at every stroke thou art thy Cross:
The mast and yard are theirs whom seas do toss.
Look down, thou seest our crosses in small things,
Look up, thou seest birds fly on crossed wings.

We will mention but one symbolical feature more in the trains of thought which were common among the early Christians. We refer to the esoterick meaning which was supposed to exist in the writings of heathen authors: as for example, when the Pollio of Virgil was imagined to point to the SAVIOUR, and the Fortunate Isles of Pindar to Paradise. It were easy but needless to dwell on this subject. The few instances we have given are already amply sufficient to prove to some, to remind others, how symbolical was the Religion of the Early Church, and (we think) to establish our case à priori.

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