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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 III.
The Argument from Analogy.

HAVING dealt with the argument à priori, we now proceed to shew that, from analogy, it is highly probably that the teaching of the Church, as in other things, so in Her material buildings, would be symbolical.

Firstly, let us look at other nations, and other religions. It need not be said that the Symbolism of the Jews was one of the most striking features of their religion. It would be unnecessary to go through their tabernacle and temple rites, their sacrificial observances, and their legal ceremonies. The Passover, the cleansing of the leper, the scape goat, the feast of tabernacles, the morning and evening sacrifice, the Sabbatical year, the jubilee, were all in the highest degree figurative. The very stones in the breast plate have each, according to the Rabbis, their mystical signification. And, as if still further to teach them sacramentality, not only of things, but of events, it pleased GOD to make all their most famous ancestors, chiefs, and leaders, e.g. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, most remarkable types of the MESSIAH: nay, from the beginning the principal doctrines of Christianity were, in some form or other, set forth. Regeneration and the Church, in the Flood and the ark: the Bread and Wine in the Manna, and the Stricken Rock: the two dispensations in Sarah and Hagar. Indeed the immense extent of symbolism in the Old Testament was the mine of the Fathers. Every day they brought to light some new wealth; and, if we press the symbolism of the Church further than it was actually intended, we are only treading in the steps of Her Bishops and Doctors. For while, of course, in commenting on and explaining the sacrifice of Isaac, the covenant of circumcision, the captivity and exaltation of Joseph, they were only developing the real meaning which GOD seems to have intended should be set forth by those events, there are,--as we have already hinted,--many instances where their piety found an interpretation which was perhaps never intended. Thus, because Job, while all else that belonged to him was restored double, had only the same number of children which he had lost,--they have argued, that thus the separate existence of souls was represented, as the Patriarch could not be said to have lost those who were in another stale of existence.

And if in the Old Testament we find authority for the principle of symbolism, much more do we in the New. We shall presently have occasion to allude to the rise and progress of the sacramentality of Baptism: we may now refer more particularly to the frequency with which S. Paul symbolizes the enactments of the law; as in the case of the ox forbidden, while treading out the corn, to be muzzled. So again, the Revelation is nothing but one continued symbolical poem. The parabolick teaching of our LORD we shall presently notice.

To this we may add, the exoterick and esoterick signification of certain books, e. g., the Song of Solomon: the double interpretation of many of the prophecies, primarily of the earthly, principally of the heavenly Jerusalem: we may refer to the symbolical meaning attached, under the Christian dispensation, to certain previously established rites, as, for instance, Holy Matrimony. With symbolical writings, enactments, events, personages, observances, buildings, vestments, for Her guides and models, how could the Church Catholick fail of following symbolism, as a principle and a passion?

But not only is Christianity symbolical: every developement of religion is, and must necessarily be so. On the Grecian mythology, we shall have occasion to say something more presently. The symbolism of Plato, and still further developement by Proclus and the later philosophers of his school, will occur to every one. If it be asserted that the more it was touched arid acted on by Christianity, the more symbolical did it become,--we only reply, So much the more to the purpose of our argument. But not only in Roman and Grecian Paganism is this the case. The Hindoo religion has much of symbolism; and some of its most striking fables, derived from whatever source,--whether from unwritten tradition, or from contact with the Jews,--possess this character wonderfully. Take, for instance, the example of Krishna suffering, and Krishna triumphant; represented, in the one case, by the figure of a man enveloped in the coils of a serpent, which fastens its teeth in his heel; in the other, by the same man setting his foot on, and crushing the head of the monster. Now here, it is true, the doctrine symbolised has long been forgotten among those with whom the legend is sacred: we, on the contrary, have a very plain reference to the promise concerning the Seed of the Woman and the serpent's head. This is an instance of the fact, that Truth will live in a symbolical, long after it has perished in every other, form: and doubtless, when the time for the conversion of India shall have arrived, thousands will receive the truth the more willingly, in that they have had a representation of it, distorted it is true, but not destroyed, set, for so many centuries, before their eyes. Some truths, accidentally impressed on a symbolical observance, may still live, that otherwise must have perished: just as the only memory of some of the beings that existed before the flood, is to be found in the petrified clay on which they accidentally happened to set their feet.

The Mahometan religion has also, though in an inferior degree, its symbolism; and the reason of its inferiority in this respect is plain,--because, namely, it is a religion of sense. Now Catholicity, which teaches men constantly to live above their senses, to mortify their passions, and to deny themselves;--nay even Hindooism, which, so far as it approximates to the truth, preaches the same doctrine, must constantly lead men by the seen to look on to the unseen. If everything material were not made sacramental of that which is immaterial, so, as it were, bearing its own corrective with its own temptation, man could hardly fail of walking by sight, rather than by faith. But now, the Church, not content with warning us that we are in an enemy's country, boldly seizes on the enemy's goods, converting them to Her own use. Symbolism is thus the true Sign of the Cross, hallowing the unholy, and making safe the dangerous: the true salt which, being cast in, purified the unhealthy spring: the true meal which removed death from the Prophet's provision. Others may amuse themselves by asserting that the Church in all that She does and enacts, is not symbolical:--we bless GOD for the knowledge that She is.

We need not dwell on the symbolism of hereticks, insomuch as we shall have occasion to refer to it in other parts of this Essay. We will rather notice, that those to whom we have been but now referring, Heathens and Mahomedans, have a way of discovering a subtle symbolism in things which in themselves were not intended to have any deeper meaning. We may mention the odes of Hafiz,--the Anacreon, or rather perhaps, the Stesichorus, of Persia. ' These poems, speaking to the casual reader of nothing but love, and wine, and garlands, and rosebuds, are seriously affirmed, by Persian criticks, to contain a deep esoterick reference to the communion of the soul with GOD; just as it has been wildly supposed, that under the name of Laura, Petrarch in fact only expressed that Immortal Beauty after which the soul of the Christian is constantly striving, and to which it is constantly advancing. So, in Dante Beatrice is not only the poet's earthly love, but, as it has been well shewn by M. Ozanam, the representative of Catholick Theology.

To dwell on the symbolism of Nature would lead us too far from our point. But fe must constantly bear in mind that Nature and the Church answer to each other as implicit and explicit revelations of GOD. Therefore, whatever system is seen to run through the one, in all probability runs through the other. Now, that the teaching of Nature is symbolical, none, we think, can deny. Shall we then wonder that the Catholick Church is in all Her art and splendour sacramental of the Blessed TRINITY, when Nature herself is so? Shall GOD have denied this symbolism to the latter, while HE has bestowed it on the former? Shall there be a trinity of effect in every picture, a trinity of tone in every note, a trinity of power in every mind, a trinity of essence in every substance,--and shall not there be a trinity in the arrangements and details of Church art? It were strange if the servant could teach, what the mistress must be silent upon: that Natural Religion should be endued with capabilities not granted to Revealed Truth.

Is not, again, the doctrine of the Resurrection wonderfully set forth by Nature? This symbolism is the more remarkable, in that to the ancients the rising of the sun and the bursting forth of the leaf must have appeared false symbolism, although they knew too well that of which autumn and evening were typical. So, to quote only one other example, the law of self-sacrifice is beautifully shadowed out by the grain that "unless it die, abideth alone; but if it die, bringeth forth much fruit." We may argue next from the analogy of all art. Sculpture, perhaps, has least to offer in our support. But in painting we may refer to the conventional colours appropriated to various personages: and the mechanical symbolism of poetry is known to all. Nor must we forget the conventional use of language. Archaisms, studied inversions, quaint phrases, and the like, have always been affected by those who were treating of high and holy subjects. None has employed these with happier effect than Spenser, whose language, it need not be said, never was and never could have been really used. The solemnizing effect of a judicious employment of this artifice is no where more strongly felt than in works of Divinity. Compare for example the English language, where the conventional Thou is always addressed to the Deity, and where a stern simplicity runs through the whole of our Divine Offices, with the French which can only employ Vous in prayer, and with the Portuguese, where, in the authorized translation of the Holy Scriptures, Apostles, and Prophets,--nay, our Blessed LORD Himself, speak in the polite phrases of conversational elegance.

[It is on grounds similar to these, that, in our translation of Durandus, we have adopted that conventional style which has been objected to by some recent criticks:--not that any one ever naturally conversed or wrote in it, but for the sake of producing the effect which the subject seems to require. The brilliancy of a summer's flay is beautiful in its place: admitted into a Cathedral, it would be totally out of character.]

Musick, however, has the strongest claims to our notice. We know, for example, that each instrument symbolizes some particular colour. So, according to Haydn, the trombone is deep red,--the trumpet, scarlet,--the clarionet, orange,--the oboe, yellow,--the bassoon, deep yellow,--the flute, sky-blue,--the diapason, deep blue,--the double diapason, purple,--the horn, violet:--while the violin is pink,--the viola, rose,--the violoncello, red,--and the double bass, crimson. This by many would be called fanciful:--therefore let us turn to a passage of Haydn's works, and see if it will hold. Let us examine the sun-rise in the 'Creation.' At the commencement, as it has been well observed, our attention is attracted by a soft-streaming sound from the violins, scarcely audible, till the pink rays of the second violin diverge into the chord of the second, to which is gradually imparted a greater fulness of colour, as the rose violas and red violoncellos steal in with expanding beauty, while the azure of the flute tempers the mounting rays of the violin: as the notes continue ascending to the highest point of brightness, the orange of the clarionet, the scarlet of the trumpet, the purple of the double diapason, unite in increasing splendour,--till the sun appears at length in all the refulgence of harmony.

This may serve as a specimen of the manner in which the expressions of one art may be translated into that of another, because they each and all symbolize the same abstraction.

Again, the language of flowers is a case much in point. This is a species of symbolism which has prevailed among all nations, and which our devout ancestors were not slow in stamping with the impress of Religion. Witness, for example, the Herb Trinity, now generally called Heartsease, the Passion Flower, and the Lacrima Christi. And in the present day, who knows not that the rose is for beauty,--the violet for modesty,--the sun-flower for faithfulness,--the forget-me-not for remembrance,--the pansy for thought,--the cypress for woe,--the yew for truehearted-ness,--the everlasting for immortality? The flowers introduced into the ornament of churches we shall consider presently.

Furthermore, whatever was the character of our LORD'S teaching,--such is likely to be that of His Church. If the former were plain, unadorned, setting forth naked truths in the fewest and simplest words; then we allow that there is a primâ facie argument against the system which we are endeavouring to support. But if it were parabolick, figurative, descriptive, allegorical,--why should not the Church imitate Her Master? His parables are at once the surest defence, and the most probable originators, of Her symbolism.

We shall have occasion in another place to draw from a consideration of the nature of our LORD'S parables an argument in behalf of symbolism against one of the most formidable objections that has been raised against the system. It would here be sufficient for our purpose to notice the figurative character of our LORD'S general teaching. But we have His own authority for much more than a general adoption of such a principle. Tradition hands down that He was within sight of the Temple when He pointed towards it, and uttered those gracious words, I AM THE DOOR. Be this as it may, we have from it a sufficient precedent to justify us in seeking for an emblematical meaning in the external world, and more particularly in the material sanctuary. S. Paul, on the same principle, allegorizes the Jewish Temple, detail by detail:--the Holy of Holies was heaven; the High Priest, CHRIST; the veil even, His flesh. It is inconceivable that the Temple should be so symbolical, and so holy that our LORD Himself cleansed it from its defiling moneychangers: and yet that a Christian church, wherein the Great Sacrifice is commemorated and our LORD is peculiarly present, should be less symbolical,--particularly when its arrangement is in exact conformity to that of the Temple,--or should be less holy. At any rate the Door must be significant: at any rate the Altar, which S. Paul claims for the Christian Church, in opposition to those who "serve the tabernacle."

Again, the holy Sacraments of the Church are examples, in the highest degree, of this principle of figurative or symbolical teaching. They, indeed, are not only signs of unseen things, but the channels and instruments of grace. The latter quality we do not claim for the speaking symbolism of a material church: but architecture is an emblem of the invisible abstract, no less than Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Besides the two Sacraments kat' exochn, our Church recognizes other offices, such as Marriage, Confirmation, and the like, as Sacramentals. In short the whole Church system is figurative from first to last: not indeed therefore the less real, actual, visible, and practical; but rather the more real and practical, because its teaching and discipline are not merely material and temporary, but anticipative of the heavenly and eternal. This quality, then of symbolism cannot be denied to one, and a most important, expression of the teaching of the Church, namely its architecture. The Cathedral (to repeat the general in the particular) is not the less material, the less solid, the less real, because we see it in the figurative exhibition of the peculiarities of our Religion and the articles of our Creed.

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