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 VI.
The Inductive Argument.

We have next to show, by a process of induction, that some principles of symbolism have always been observed in designing churches: that is to say, that without any actual acquaintance with the plan, details or arrangement of existing churches, we might gather from other sources, not only the probability, but the fact, that there was some reason (not merely mechanical or accidental) for the selection and universal observation of particular forms and ornaments, and peculiar rules of distribution.

First, we shall refer to the celebrated passage of S. Clement of Rome, about performing the Divine Offices decently and in order, as to time, and place, and circumstance. "Where and by whom GOD willeth these to be performed He hath Himself denned by His most supreme will." [S. Clem. Rom., ad Corinth, i., 40.] 'But where, says Mede, (discussing the passage with the view of establishing a particular point namely, Bowing towards the Altar) 'hath the LORD denned these things, unless He hath left us to the analogy of the Old Testament?' [Mede, in Epist. lviii. Folio, Lib. iv. lxiv.] This indeed is obviously S. Clement's meaning: and not to go at any length into the consideration of all the particular forms or ceremonies of the Old Dispensation which were perpetuated in the New-as the three-fold Ministry deduced by S. Jerome, from the High Priest, Priests, and Levites; the Canonical Hours; the Gospel anciently laid on the Altar, answering to the Two Tables, and the like-it will be sufficient to refer once more to the remarkable parallel between a Christian church and the Jewish Temple. There can be little doubt that Mede proved his point of the propriety of genuflexion towards the Altar. We are contending for a much simpler thing: for no more indeed than the concession of a probability that in the earliest Christian churches there was at least this resemblance to the Temple; that there should be in both a Holy of Holies and an outer-court. Supposing this distinction to have been only made by a curtain, our point is nevertheless gained: and we would rest here on this one particular of resemblance only, (though others might be insisted on); because, any one designed parallel being granted, the inference for others is easy. And here it will be enough to observe that the almost constant practice in ancient writers of applying to some one part of a Christian church a name or names derived directly from the Holy of Holies is a strong argument in our favour: though the passages are often too incidental to be adduced as evidence of an intended symbolism. [Compare, amongst others, S. Cyprian, Ep. 55; Euseb. x, 4. to agion agiwn qusiasthrion; Id. vii., 18. to agiasma. (the word used in the lxx. for the Sanctuary): S. Dionys. Areop., Ep. 8, ad Demoph.; S. Athanas., Edit. Commel. Tom., ii., p. 255; Theod. H. E. iv., 17, v., 18; Concil. Tours. (A.D. 557), can. 4; S. Germ. Constant. In Theor. rer. Eccles.; Card. Bona. Rer. Liturg. i., xxv., 11; Dionys. Hierarch. cap. 2; S. Chrysost. Lib vi., De Sacerdotio.] But, we repeat, the fact that a particular part of a church,--(if we were now arguing for Rood screens, we should shew that any such distinction of parts made a screen of some sort necessary, even if we did not know what sort of screens really existed)-the fact that a particular part of a church was distinguished by names directly carrying us back to the exactly corresponding particular part in the Temple, shews that in the arrangement at least, if not in the building, of the earliest churches there was, at least in this one point, an intention to produce an antitype to the typical Tabernacle. It is observed in a note to Neander's history that if the interpretation of Michaelis be received there is evidence of a Christian church being built at Edessa, A.D. 202, with three parts, expressly after the model of the Temple. [Rose's Neander, i., 246.]

Whatever may be the authority allowed to the Apostolical Constitutions, the fact that they touch at some length upon the form of churches is enough for our purpose. 'The church,' they say, 'must be oblong in form, and pointing to the East.' [Apost. Const. 2, 57, (61.)] The oblong form was meant to symbolize a ship, the ark which was to save us from the stormy world. [See also what is said on this point by Buscemi, in his Notizie della Basilica di San Pietro. ch. iii., p. 7. The church of S.S. Vincenzo and Anastatic at Home, near S. Paolo alle Tre Fontane, built by Honorius I., (A.D. 630,) has its wall curved like the ribs of a ship. The constitution itself refers to the resemblance of this oblong form to a ship. See also S. Clem. Alex., Paedag., iii., 346.] It would be perfectly unnecessary to support this obvious piece of symbolism by citations. The orientation is an equally valuable example of intended symbolism. We gain an additional testimony to this from the well known passage of Tertullian, (A.D., 200,) about "The house of our Dove." [Tertull. advers. Valent., cap. 2.] Whether this corrupt extract be interpreted with Mede or Bingham, there can be no doubt that its in lucem means that the church should face the East or day-spring. The praying towards the East was the almost invariable custom in the Early Churches, and as symbolical as their standing in prayer upon the Festivals of the Resurrection. [See Origen, Hom. 5, in Numer. cap. 4. Tertull. Apol. cap. 16, and Ad Nation., i., 13. S. Clem. Alex. Strom., vii., ante med. quoted by Mede.] So common was orientation in the most ancient churches, that Socrates mentions particularly the church at Antioch as having its "position reversed; for the Altar does not look to the East but to the West." This rule appears to have been more scrupulously followed in the East than in the West; though even in Europe examples to the contrary are exceptions. [Hist. Eccles. Lib. v., cap. kb.]

The Apostolical Constitution in its other directions about the position of the Bishop, Priests, and Deacons, and the separate stations for the sexes, shews (as Father Thiers has remarked) that there was even then a marked distinction between the Clergy and Laity, though the method of division is not described. [Thiers, Dissert. de la ClĂ´ture du Choeur des Eglises. cap. 2.] At any rate, what has been here adduced-compiled from notes taken some time since for another object, and without access (from accidental circumstances) to a Library-seems enough to shew that in the earliest notices of Christian churches there is distinct intimation of at least three particulars of intended symbolism.

The circular form given to the church of the Holy Sepulchre was of course appropriate enough in that particular case, where the Sepulchre would naturally become the centre. The circular churches of Europe were again imitated from this. The Cross form would appear to have made its first appearance in Constantinople: that is, in the city which was the first to take a completely Christian character. For example, the church of the Apostles built by Constantine was cruciform: and the symbolism of this is pointed out by S. Gregory Nazianzen in his poem, "the Dream of Anastasia," quoted by Bingham. [Carm. ix. Tom. ii. p. 79.] So Evagrius describes the church of S. Simon Stylites, as cited by Buscemi, who also mentions a Cross church founded by King Childebert, about the year 550. [Notizie &c. Note al Lib. I. capo terzo. Nota 10. p. 15.] The Cathedral of Clermont, mentioned by S. Gregory of Tours, and the church of SS. Nazarius and Celsus at Ravenna, both founded about 450, were cruciform. More than this, we have examples of an oblong church being intentionally made cruciform by the addition of apsides, as at Blachernae by Justin Junior, instanced by Bingham out of Cedrenus and Zonaras. This has been remarked also in the case of some Italian churches: though the early churches of the West seemed to have retained the oblong form, even when the details and general arrangement were Byzantine, as in the Cappella Regia at Messina; the more remarkable from the peculiar influence of Constantinople in the island of Sicily. But in either case there was a symbolizing intention on the part of the founders of churches.

There is mention also of octagonal churches, as at Antioch and Nazianzum: but these seem to have been mere exceptions; and perhaps from being coupled with fonts in the inscription quoted by Mr. Poole from Gruter, may have been intended to symbolise Regeneration. The first two lines are as follows:

Octachorum sanctos templum surrexit in usus:
Octagonus fons est munere dignus eo.

Bingham mentions that the oblong form was sometimes called dromikon, which he explains as intimating that they had void spaces for deambulation. [Book viii. 3. following Leo Allatius and Suicer.] It seems however more likely that the name was derived from the resemblance between this form of church and a stadium; the apsidal end answering to the curve round the goal.

Some objection may be raised to our theory because Bingham, from whom of course almost all the existing passages in ancient writers about the form of churches might be gathered, does not recognize any such principles, and rather seems on the other hand to believe that there was at first no rule or law on these points. But it is not detracting from his fame for almost consummate learning to question whether his practical knowledge of Church architecture, ancient or modern, was very deep. It might be shewn indeed to be far otherwise. But at any rate the principle now contended for never entered his mind, or he would have seen that some of the very passages he adduces to show that the form of ancient churches was accidental, because (for example) they were often made out of Basilicas or even heathen temples, really tell against such a supposition. He quotes from Socrates a description of the conversion of a Pagan island to Christianity, about 380, and the turning the heathen temple into a church. [Socrates iv. 24.] But the words of the original, given in our note, are very remarkable: "The guise of the temple they transformed unto the type (or pattern) of a church." We want to prove nothing more than that there was some. type of a church. It was not a mere ejection of idols that was required to make a temple into a church: but some change of form and arrangement. So also in a passage from Sozomen, (vii., 15,) "The temple of Dionysus which they had, was changed in fittings (meteskeuasqh) into a church." Again, a very interesting passage about the conversion of Iberia by means of a female captive in the time of Constantine is cited from Theodoret, to shew that churches did exist at that date. [Theodoret I. xxiv.] But we find a particular form of building clearly alluded to in the original: and, more than this, "He Who filled Bezaleel with a wise spirit for building, judged this captive also worthy of grace, so as to design the divine temple. And so she designed, and they built." And this passage brings us at once to the famous panegyrick on Paulinus, Bishop of Tyre, and builder of the church there, preserved by Eusebius. In this speech the prelate is throughout supposed to have been inspired for his work, and is compared to Bezaleel, Solomon, and Zerubbabel, the builders of the Tabernacle, and the First and Second Temples. And not only is the general spirit assumed to be a directly religious one: but the details are described as having a symbolical meaning.

In the comparison between the material temple and the 'living temple' the Spiritual Church, there are several points worthy of observation. The symbolical explanation of the corner stone as our LORD, of the foundation as the Apostles and Prophets, of the stones as the Members of the Church, are of course taken directly from Holy Scripture. It is scarcely necessary to remark the great authority for considering the fabrick of the Church as symbolical which these passages convey. Many of our readers will remember how S. Hernias carries out into considerable detail the same idea. But the Panegyrist in Eusebius distinctly refers to "the most inward recesses [of that spiritual temple] which are unseen of the many, and are essentially holy and holy of holies"; [Euseb. H. E.,x.,4,21.] that is, of course, to a Sanctuary; which he goes on to describe as having "sacred inclosures," and as being accessible to the priest alone; with a distinct reference to S. Paul's illustration taken from the Jewish Temple. [Hebrews, ix. 6, 7.] Again he proceeds to compare the Bishop Paulinus with the "great High Priest," not only in being permitted to enter the holy of holies, but in doing what CHRIST has done, just as the SON did what He saw the FATHER do. "Thus he, looking with the pure eyes of his mind unto the Great Teacher, whatsoever he seeth Him doing, as if making use of archetypal patterns, has, by building (demiourgwn) as much like them as possible, wrought out images of them as closely as can be; having in no respect fallen short of Bezaleel, whom GOD Himself, having filled him with the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge and other skilful and scientifick lore, called to be the builder of the material expression of the heavenly types in the symbols of the temple. In this way then Paulinus also, carrying wholly like a graven image in his soul CHRIST Himself, the Word, the Wisdom, the Light ...... has constructed this magnifical temple of the Most High GOD, resembling in its nature the pattern of the better (temple) as a visible (emblem) of that which is invisible." [Euseb. X. iv. 24, 25.] This remarkable passage appears to assert (i) the inspiration of the architect, (ii) the fact of this heavenly type, which (iii) material churches ought to follow; and (iv) the general symbolism of the Spiritual Church by the visible fabrick. We must pass over a great deal of this oration, with a general request that such as are interested in this discussion will read the whole in the original for the sake of seeing its general spirit and hearing. The description of the details is of great interest. The arrangement of the porticoes, &c. is of course quite adapted to the wants of the Church in that age: it is fair to own that the chief entrance appears to have faced the East in this church. Mention is made also of seats in order for the Bishops and Presbyters, and of the Altar in the midst: the whole being encompassed with wooden network, exquisitely worked, in order to be made inaccessible to the multitude. [Euseb. H.E., x., 43.] Further on we read that Paulinus rebuilt his church "such as he had been taught from the delineation of the holy oracles." [Ibid 53.] And again, "More wonderful than wonders are the archetypes, and the intelligent and godlike prototypes and patterns (of earthly church building); namely, I say, the renewing of the divine and reasonable building in the soul"; [Ibid 54] assuming that material churches are but copies from some heavenly type. Again, a passage, in which the ruined fabrick and the persecuted Church are mixed up, speaks of the Church as "having been made after the image of GOD," and more to the same effect. [Ibid 57.] The symbolical prophecy of the "fair edification" of the Gentile Church [Isaiah liv, 11.] is quoted as being almost literally fulfilled in the Tyrian church, and is still further symbolized by the Panegyrist. [Euseb. X. iv, 60.] The four-square atrium is said to set forth the four Gospels of the scripture. [Ibid 61.] The whole arrangement of the church is symbolised at much length, as setting forth the different divisions of the laity and the states of the faithful with respect to advance in holiness. The great portico symbolized GOD the FATHER: the side porticoes the other Two Persons of the MOST HOLY TRINITY. The seats represented the souls of the faithful, upon which, as on the Day of Pentecost, the cloven tongues would descend and sit upon each of them. "The revered and great and only altar, what could this be but the spotlessness of soul and holiness of holies of the common Priest of us all?"* Once more, the parallel between the spiritual and material Churches being continued, the WORD, the Great Demiurgus of all things, is said to have Himself made upon earth a copy of the heavenly pattern which is the Church of the Firstborn written in heaven, Jerusalem that is above, Sion the Mount of GOD, and the city of the living GOD.

It appears then that throughout this description a symbolical meaning is found attached to the material church: and this not far-fetched or now first fancifully imagined; but appealing, as it seems, to what the auditors would be prepared to grant, and admitted by the historian without a comment, as one specimen of a class.

We have before remarked that every notice of the particular distribution of a Church for the reception of the different classes of Christians, may be taken as an argument on our side: for if it can be shewn that the form of churches was not arbitrary, but was adapted to certain peculiar wants, it must be granted that there was some particular law of design, and that law connected with Ritual; and then, as before pointed out, this arrangement becomes itself symbolical, and that intentionally. We shall only refer here to a passage quoted by Bingham, in which S. Gregory Thaumaturgus describes the places in church assigned respectively to the five degrees of Penitents. [Greg. Nyssen, iii, 567. ] Mede argues for the existence of churches in the first three centuries, from the Universal custom of praying towards the East, the necessity of providing distinct places for the Penitents, Hearers, Catechumens, and Faithful, and from the patterns of the Jewish proseuchte and synagogues. [Discourse of Churches, Folio Edn., p. 333.] But all these arguments seem to tell as much for some particular form of churches as for their existence: that is they prove that the earliest churches were designed on rules which, even if not intentionally symbolical (though we have shewn that many were so), became by a natural process intentional among later churchbuilders.

So also with respect to the great division into Nave and Sanctuary by a screen of some sort: concerning which the passages that might be cited from ancient writers would be innumerable. We shall only give one quoted by Father Thiers from a Poem of S. Gregory of Nazianzum, in which the balustrade or roodscreen is said to be "between two worlds, the one immovable, the other changeful; the one of gods (or heaven) the other of mortals (or earth); that is to say, between the Choir and the Nave, between the Clergy and the Laity."

We have attempted to prove then that the earliest Christian churches were designed, or described, symbolically: by showing that there was a reason for their shape, whether oblong, cruciform, or circular; for their main division into Choir and Nave, and their sub-division for the Penitents: for their orientation; and even to some extent for their minor internal arrangements: and that some type or pattern of a church was universally recognized. [Much stress is laid by some on the acknowledged Basilican origin of Churches as an argument against the principle here contended for. But we find a great authority on the Antiquities of Christian Rome deciding; differently. "There seems to be in the building of churches, as in the mosaicks, and other works of art of the old Christian times in Rome, one constant type in which the art of building could show little freedom or variety."--Beschreibung der Studt Rom. Basiliken. Vol. i. p. 430.] It would require more reading than we can boast of to give a catena of writers who have asserted the symbolism of churches. But if the point has been in any way proved for the first four centuries, enough will have been done: since from that period we can trace from existing edifices the gradual relinquishment of the peculiar Basilican plan, and general adoption of the Latin Cross, or oblong, in the West, while the East consistently retained the Greek Cross. We observe it stated that Mr. E. Sharpe, in a paper read before the Cambridge Camden Society, (not yet published by them,) described the gradual "typical additions" to the Basilican ground plan. [Ecclesiologist, vol. i. p. 120.] Indeed symbolism, to any extent, once made known, must have become a rule and precedent to later Church architects.

S. Isidore, of Seville, incidentally mentions many symbolical arrangements: they will be found in the notes to the text of the Rationale. Many pieces of symbolism are to be found incidentally in the Decretum of Gratian.

In mentioning Durandus himself, it seems proper to anticipate an objection which may occur to some readers. The authority, it may be said, of that writer must be very small who can give such absurd derivations as cemeterium from time, altare from alta res, allegory from allon and gore. But it must be remembered, firstly, that in the thirteenth century, Greek was a language almost unknown in Europe: next that our author nowhere professes an acquaintance with it: further, that the science of derivation was hardly understood till within the last few years: and lastly, that Cicero's authority led Durandus into some errors; for instance, his derivation of templum from tectum amplum.

One proof of the reality of Durandus's principles we must not fail to notice. It is the express allusion which he makes to, and the graphical description which he gives of, that which we know to have been the style of architecture employed in his time. The tie beams, the deeply splayed windows, the interior shafts, all prove that we are engaged with a writer of Early English date.

It is very remarkable, that Durandus, S. Isidore, Beleth, and the rest, seem to quote from some Canons of church symbolism, now unknown to us. Their words are often, even where they are not very connected nor intelligible, the same. One example may suffice. "In that this rod," says Hugh of S. Victor, "is placed above the Cross, it is shewn that the words of scripture be consummated and confirmed by the Cross: whence our LORD said in His Passion, 'IT IS FINISHED.' And His Title was indelibly written over Him." (p. 200.) "In that the iron rod," says Durandus, "is placed above the Cross, on the summit of the church, it signifieth that Holy Scripture is now consummated and confirmed. Whence saith our LORD in His Passion, 'IT IS FINISHED,' and that Title is written indelibly over Him, (p. 28.) The following, by way of another instance, is the symbolical description of a church, written on a fly-leaf, at the beginning of a MS. "Psalterium Glossatum," in the public library at Boulogne, though formerly in that of S. Bertin's Abbey, at S. Omer. [British Magazine, 1843, p. 393.]

The text is either of the tenth or eleventh century; but it will be seen that the words of Durandus, writing at so great a distance of time and place, are, nearly the same in some passages.

Fundamentum ipsius Camerae est Fides.
Altitude ejus est Spes.
Latitude ejus est Caritas.
Longitude ejus est Perseverantia.
Latera ejus sunt Concordia et Pax.
Frontes ipsius sunt Justicia & Veritas.
Pulchritude ejus est exemplum bonorum operum.
Fenestrae ejus sunt dicta sanctorum.
Paviroentum ejus est humilitas cordis.
Camera est conversatio coelestis.
Pilastri ejus sunt spiritales virtues.
Columnar ejus sunt boni pontifices & sacerdotes.
Interlegatio ejus est vinculum pacis.
Tectum ejus est fidelis dispensator.
* isces ejus sunt mediatio celestis.
Mensa Christi est in camera bona conversatio.
Miuisteriura Christi in camera sua est bona memoria.
Facinus Christi est bona voluntas.
Cauterellus Christi est nitor conscientiae.
Cathedra Christi est serenitas mentis.
Sponsa Christi est sancta anima.
Camerariae Christi spiritales virtutes sunt:
Prima Sancta Caritas dicta est; illa Christi regit cameram.
Secunda est Sancta Humilitas; illa est thesauraria in camera Christi.
Tertia est Sancta Patientia; illa facit luminaria in camera Christi.
Quarta Sancta Puritas; illa scopat cameram Christi.

But besides, and in our opinion stronger than, this express and continuous testimony to the fact that Catholick architecture is symbolical, we have the testimony of all other branches of Catholick art, which none ever did, or could deny to be figurative and Sacramental. Let us take merely the rites which accompany the close of Easter week. We enter a darkened church, illuminated only by the lighted 'sepulchre': we hear the history of the Passion chaunted by three voices in three recitatives: we have the most mournfully pathetic strain for the 'Reproaches' which perhaps the human mind ever imagined:--we pray for Pagans--and we kneel; we pray for Turks--and we kneel; we pray for the Jews, and we kneel not; in abhorrence of the mockery that bowed the knee to the King of the Jews. We enter that church again, now perfectly-darkened, except for the one lamp that renders the lettern and the books thereon just visible: the solemn Litanies seem in that obscurity, and amidst the silent crowd of worshippers, more solemn than usual. There is a short pause: then in one second, Priests and People, voices and instruments, burst forth with the Easter Alleluia: light pours in from every window of the Cathedral: showers of rose leaves fall from the roof: bells,--silent for three long days, peal from every church tower: guns fire and banners wave: DOMINUS resurrexit vere, Alleluia, et apparuit Simoni, Alleluia.

Now, without being concerned to defend, or the contrary, any or all of these ceremonies, we ask,--Is it possible to conceive that the Church which invented so deeply a symbolical a system of worship,--should have rested content with an unsymbolical building for its practice? This consideration, perhaps, belongs to the analogical branch of our essay: yet it may also find a place here, as one of the strongest parts of the inductive argument.

Seeing then that there are strong reasons a priori for believing that the ritual and architecture of the Church would partake of a decidedly symbolical character: that by the analogy of the practice amongst all religionists, of the operations of GOD in nature, of the conditions of Art, and especially of the whole sacramental system of the Church, it is likely that Church architecture itself would be sacramental: that from the nature of things every thing material is in some sort sacramental, and a material fabric essentially figurative of the purpose for which it was designed: that an actual Christian church, (taken as we find it,) has such accidents as can be explained on no other than a symbolical supposition, and might be analyzed into just those elements from which, by induction we first constructed an hypothetical Christian church: and lastly, that from express and continuous historical testimony without any actual acquaintance with existing fabrics we might have deduced that the material church would be itself, to some extent, a figurative expression of the religion for the celebration of which it was constructed: it does not seem too much to assert that Christian architecture owes its distinctive peculiarities to its sacramental character, and that consequently we can neither appreciate ancient examples nor hope to rival them, at least in their perfection, without taking into account this principle of their design. In other words, the cause of that indefinable difference between an ancient and modern church which we were led to discover at the beginning of this treatise, is neither association of ideas, nor correctness of detail, nor picturesqueness, nor of a mechanical nature, but, (in the most general point of view) is the sacramentality, the religious symbolism, which distinguished and sanctified this as every other branch of mediaeval art.

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