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 IV.
Philosophical Reasons for Believing in Symbolism.

WE now propose to offer a few remarks on the philosophical reasons there seem to be for concluding that Ecclesiastical Architecture has some esoterick meaning some figurative adaptation, more than can be appreciated, or even discerned, by the casual observer, to the uses which produced it, and which have always regulated it. We venture to approach this consideration, however, rather from a feeling that our Essay would be incomplete without some reference to this kind of argument, than from any idea of our own ability to treat on subjects so abstract and infinite; and fearing that we may not be able clearly to express or dissect those thoughts which, nevertheless, appear to our own minds both true and very important.

It is little better than a truism to assert that there is an intimate correspondence and relation between cause and effect: yet this thought opens the way to a very wide field of speculation. Mind cannot act upon matter without the material result being closely related to the mental intention which originated it: the fact that anything exists adapted to a certain end or use is alone enough to presuppose the end or use: who can see a poihma, without distinguishing its relation to the want or necessity which brought about poihsiV? In short, the ergon, whatever it may be, not only answers to that which called it forth, but, in some sort, represents materially, or symbolizes, the abstract volition or operation of the mind which originated it. Shew us a pitcher, a skewer, or any of the simplest utensils designed for the most obvious purposes: do not the cavity of the one, and the piercing point of the other, at once set forth and symbolize the teloV which was answered in their production? Now, from this thought, we might proceed to trace out the truthfulness and reality of every poihma considered in relation to the to poioun; for even a deceptive thing is true and real in its relation to the mental intention of deceiving: but we intend merely to consider the way in which the abstract movements or orexeiV of mind are symbolized by the material operations or results which they have produced. In other words, we would allege that everything material is symbolical of some mental process, of which it is indeed only the developement: that we may see in everything outward and visible some inward and spiritual meaning. It is this which makes "books in everything:" finding in everything objective the material exhibition of the subjective and unseen: not claiming for the abstract mind an independence of matter, but acknowledging its union with it; and thus learning from the speculations of reason, to perceive the fitness for our nature of that system of sacramentality in which GOD has placed us, and to bless Him more and more for the Church, a sacramental institution, and for the Sacraments kat' exochn, which it conveys. This method of viewing the subject will be our excuse for attempting on the one hand to learn by analysis from a material church itself, considered objectively, the symbolism which may be supposed to have directed its design; and on the other hand to shew from the abstract necessities of the case that a material church might have been expected to be symbolically designed. But if this theory of symbolism gives light and meaning and connection to the acknowledged facts, whether abstract or material, with which we have to do;--while no other view will explain all the phenomena;--it certainly recommends itself by its simplicity and harmony to a general reception. Considered in this light, the whole group of separate facts become linked together and adjusted, and so resolve themselves into a great fabrick of truth, which (like the Pyramid of Cheops) is consistent and real and intelligible, when seen from any point, under any circumstances, or in any light.

But if it be granted that there is this mutual connexion between the abstract and its material exhibition in every case, it will be readily admitted that a principle of sacramentality must be especially a condition of all religious acts. If we were merely spirits, without bodies or any necessary connexion with matter, it would be possible perhaps for us to worship the GREAT SPIRIT in an abstract way' by a sort of volition of devotion; but not being so, our souls cannot engage in adoration without the company of their material home. Hence every effort of devotion is attended by some bodily act. Whether we lift our eyes or hands to heaven, or kneel in prayer, we shew forth this necessity of our being: our body has sinned, has been redeemed, will be punished or glorified, no less than the soul: it must therefore worship with the soul. Now the symbolism of the bodily acts of devotion is understood by all. We have even personated Prayer by a prostrate figure with uplifted hands. [The necessity which the body seems to feel for this symbolism may be seen in the constantly occurring fact, that in making signs, whether of enquiry or adieu, to a person at a distance, we naturally speak the words, though inaudible to him, which the gestures we use express.] It has been felt not only right but necessary, in all ages and places, to accompany the inward feeling of devotion with some outward manifestation of it. In other words, all religious actions are from their nature symbolical and figurative. But if the most obvious corporeal accompaniments to spiritual worship shew this clearly, how much more evidently must all ritual systems appear to be symbolical! A system of worship, whether heathen, Christian, or heretical, is only the developement and methodizing of the simplest figurative acts of devotion; the whole affected by the peculiar relation between the object of adoration and the worshippers which in each particular system may have been pre-supposed. Why does the Mussulman take off his shoes, kneel on his carpet towards Mecca, and perform his stated ablutions? Is not each act in itself figurative and full of meaning? How could such a system, or any other system, have been originated, but with some intended typification of certain given facts or doctrines or feelings? Why does the heartless Quaker go with covered head into his bare conventicle, and sit in enforced silence? He will answer, to express his independence of idle forms, the spirituality of his worship, his repudiation of any media in his intercourse with the Divine Being. We thank him for his admission of a symbolical purpose, but we read the symbolism differently. We perceive it to express clearly enough the presumptuous pride and vanity of his sect, his rejection of all Sacraments, and his practical disbelief in the Communion of Saints. Again, is the pulpit of the Brownist symbolical; and shall not our Font and Altar be so at least as much? The Catholick ritual is indeed symbolical from first to last. Without the clue to its figurative meaning, we should never have understood its pregnant truthfulness and force. No one, in short, ever ventured to regard the ancient ritual as anything but highly figurative: this was claimed as its highest excellence by its observers and commentators, this was ridiculed and despised by the enemies of the Church; but was confessed by all. The more any one meditates on the ancient ritual of the Church, the more this will be found not only the most prominent characteristick, but the only satisfactory explanation of many otherwise unintelligible requirements. This is not the place to go at any length into the consideration of the whole symbolism of the ritual system: it will be enough if it is granted that some prescribed ritual, however meagre, must be a necessary part of all religion; and that every such system is in some degree figurative or symbolical. Now to apply this to Church architecture. No one will deny that, in a general point of view, the form of our churches is adapted to certain wants, and was chosen for this very adaptation. Indeed this is allowed by modern writers and builders: who defend a church which has no more than an altar-recess, on this very ground, that there is no longer any want of a deep chancel. "I object to aisles," says a modern architect, "because the great end of a church is to be an auditorium." "The cross form," says another, "I always adopt, because then every one can see the preacher if I place the pulpit in the middle." But why not take a circle or octagon at once, or the form which is always adopted for the lecture-rooms at Mechanics' Institutes? For these plans are obviously most convenient for hearing and seeing. But then, every one knows that these are not Church forms. The modern builder then, trammeled, at least in this respect, by rule and precedent, chooses the cruciform plan, not (perhaps) for its true symbolism; but, by a wrong arrangement of this plan, still further symbolizes (for example) his own undue estimation of the ordinance of preaching. So true it is that those who would most object to symbolism, as a rule of design, are themselves (did they but know it) symbolizing, in every church they build, their own arbitrary and presumptuous ideas on the subject. It is not our intention to prove here, (what has been pointed out however many times,) the duty incumbent upon us of following in our modern churches the ancient principles of design: we are not writing with the immediate practical end of improving modern Church architecture; but are endeavouring to illustrate the symbolical principles of ancient design. We shall, however, before finishing this chapter, choose an example, which will apply to us, as well as to any other branch of the Church, to shew how essentially Church architecture in that respect at least is a part of the Ritual system. And if Catholick worship is expressed and represented by Catholick ritual, and if Church architecture is a part of this ritual, then is Church architecture itself an expression and exponent of Catholick worship. A conclusion this which will well warrant the very strong language in which the Cambridge Camden Society have always asserted the great importance of this art, and have exacted from its professors such qualifications of personal holiness and liturgical knowledge as are no less above the attainment than the aspirations of the modern school.

It may not be clear to some how in any sense architecture can be called symbolical, or the outward sign of something invisible: or rather what the process is by which a given arrangement, suggested perhaps by some necessity, becomes in turn suggestive and figurative of the very purpose for which it was planned. But let us take the case of a theatre. Here it is clearly necessary that there shall be a stage or orchestra, accommodation for spectators, and means of easy exit. Accordingly every theatre displays all these requisites. And does not the building then in turn emblem the purpose for which it was planned? The ruins of Roman theatres are not uncommon: do we fail to be recalled by them to the idea of the Roman stage? are not the several parts of the material building highly figurative and suggestive of the rules and orders of the abstract drama?

With respect to churches: let us suppose the institution and ritual of the Church to be what we know it was; and that we have to adapt some architectural arrangement to the performance of this ritual. Is there anything which will dictate any general form rather than another? Surely there is. We will not speak now of the propriety of setting aside a place for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, or of the propriety of retaining the plan of the typical Temple; but we are considering simply what is required by practical necessity. The worshippers who are to assemble in our church are not all on an equality. There are some who are endowed with high privileges as being those consecrated to the immediate service of the sanctuary. In early times so real a thing was the distinction between the Clergy and the Laity, that the Church being divided into these two classes, the material edifice displayed a like division: and the Nave and Chancel preach to posterity the sacredness of Holy Orders, and the mutual duties arising from the relation in which the flock stand to their shepherds. But in early ages the Laity were not all classed en masse as with us now. Among them were the Faithful, the Catechumens, who had not yet been admitted to Holy Baptism, and the Penitents or those who had lapsed. True to itself, church architecture provided then a separate place for each of these divisions. Does not the ground plan of such a church symbolize minutely the then state of Church discipline and the conditions of Church worship? The reality and meaning of such an arrangement may be shown thus also. After the Reformation the great distinction between Clergy and Laity became lost or undervalued: accordingly the chancel-screens in many places disappeared, as symbolical in their absence as in their existence. But still there was a necessity for some material arrangement to protect the Altar from insult: and so Altar-rails came in, manifest symbols of that spirit which made their introduction allowable, if indeed not necessary: still these very rails, and the penned up reading-pue, teach that the Clergy, at least when performing a function, are divided from the laity.

[In the correspondence of the Rev. W. Humphrey, whose atrocious treatment by the Church Missionary Society has so lately excited the indignation of all true Churchmen, it appears that one of the noble designs of this zealous Priest was to restore for the peculiar congregation over which he was appointed, consisting of Faithful, Catechumens, and Unbelievers, the distinct arrangement of the ancient Church: the modern plan of having but one area for the lay worshippers being found inconvenient and injurious. That is to say, our modern Church arrangement may suit and does symbolize the present state of the Church with us, but does not suit and does not symbolize the state of the missionary Church of India.]

Now it is of no consequence whatever, whether the early builders of churches intended this particular arrangement to be symbolical. The arrangement being adopted becomes necessarily, even if unintentionally, symbolical, by the process we have endeavoured to trace, and so things essentially symbolical give rise to intended symbolism: for it is a simple historical fact that the weathercock, whatever practical utility may have first suggested its use and peculiar form, has been for many centuries placed on the church spire for its intentional symbolism. And the process is repeated: for suppose one only of the conventional symbolical meanings of the weather-cock had been discovered: the thoughtful mind goes on to find out other figurative senses in which its use is appropriate, and these conventional meanings become in their turn intentionally symbolized by future church builders. This may be illustrated also in the following way. The Jews, in the rite of Baptism, had probably no other idea than a reference to "the mystical washing away of sins." But when S. Paul had once given to that rite the new idea of a burial with CHRIST in the Baptismal water, and a rising again with Him, this typical meaning became an example of intended symbolism to all those who should hereafter use it.

As we began this part of our subject with hesitation, so we finish it with some degree of apprehension. To some what has been said may seem more than ordinarily visionary, and ridiculous: yet others, we hope, will feel that, however feebly and inadequately expressed, there is some truth in what has been advanced concerning the relation between the material and immaterial: that the latter wielding and moulding the former into an expression of itself, makes it in turn a type of that which it expresses. So that if on the one hand, to take our particular branch of the subject, the theoretical ritual and ordinances of religion imply and require certain peculiar adaptations of the material building in which they are to be celebrated; then in turn the circumstances of the material fabrick suggest and symbolize the peculiar conditions of ritual which induced them. In short we have endeavoured to prove that from our very nature every outward thing is symbolical of something inward and spiritual: but, above all things, outward religious actions are sacramental; and particularly any prescribed ritual, of which the first characteristick is that it is figurative: that the Catholick ritual is eminently symbolical, and from its nature very strikingly influences all its material appliances: that Church architecture is the eldest daughter of Ritual: that the process, according to which architecture was influenced by the requirements of Ritualism was at first as simple as that by which the form of a theatre sprang from the conditions which were to be fulfilled by its builder: that thus a church (built in the fully developed style of Christian architecture) even if not built with any intention of symbolizing, (though it is an historical fact that the symbolism of each part was known and received before the erection of any church of this style,) became nevertheless essentially a "petrifaction of our religion": a fact which, once admitted and realized, becomes to succeeding Church builders, whether they will or not, a rule and precedent for intentional symbolical design.

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