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 VII.
Examples of Symbolism.

In endeavouring shortly to develope the practice of symbolism, according to our view of the subject, we are fully aware that to those, who have never yet bestowed a thought upon it, we shall appear mere visionaries or enthusiasts. It has been the fashion of late to smile at the whole theory, as amusing and perhaps beautiful: but quite unpractical and indeed impracticable. We cannot hope to convince by aestheticks those who are deaf to more direct arguments, and who refuse to view every thing, as Churchmen ought to do, through the medium of the Church. But those who agree with us in the latter duty, will perhaps suffer themselves to think twice on what will be advanced before they condemn it.

We shall consider the practice of symbolism as connected with, 1. The HOLY TRINITY; 2. Regeneration; 3. The Atonement; 4. The Communion of Saints; and then we shall notice several parts of a church, such as Windows, Doors, &c., with their specifick symbolical meaning.

The Doctrine of the HOLY TRINITY has left, as might be expected, deeper traces in the structure of our churches than any other principle of our Faith. We have already noticed that possibly the Basilican arrangement might be providentially adduced with reference to this. In Saxon times we find the idea carried out, not only by the Nave and two Aisles, but also by the triple division in length, into Nave, Chancel, and Sanctum Sanctorum. This triple division is most frequently given in Norman buildings, by a central Tower; with Chancel and Nave: we also find in this style a triple Chancel Arch, an arrangement never occuring at a later epoch. Thus length and breadth were made significant of this Mystery; nor was height less so. The Clerestory, the Triforium, and the Piers cannot fail to suggest it. Indeed, where a Triforium was not needed, there is often, as at Exeter and Wells, an arrangement of arcading in niches to resemble it, made that the triplicity might be retained. It is only in late Perpendicular, such as the Nave of Canterbury Cathedral, that the arrangement is doubled: there the eye is at once dissatisfied. Again, the triple orders of moulding, which are so much more frequent than any other number, may be supposed to refer to the same thing. The Altar steps, three, or some multiple of three, certainly do. So do the three fingers with which Episcopal Benediction is given. And this is a very early symbolism. It occurs in illuminated MS. We may mention one (Harl. 5540) of the thirteenth century, where it forms a part of the first letter of S. John's gospel. So, as we shall presently see, are Eastern Triplets. And reference is constantly made to the same doctrine in bosses: we may mention as a remarkable instance one that occurs in Stamford, S. Mary's, a figure with an equilateral triangle in its mouth: thereby setting forth the duty of the Preacher to proclaim the doctrine of the Trinity. In large churches, the Three Towers undoubtedly proclaim the same doctrine. We shall hereafter show that neither in Nave and Aisles, in Triplets, or any thing else, is the inequality any thing else than what might have been expected.


We know, as a fact, that from the earliest times, Baptisteries and Fonts were octagonal. We know also that the reason assigned, if not by S. Ambrose himself, at least by one of his contemporaries for this form was, that the number eight was symbolical of Regeneration. For as the old Creation was complete in seven days, so the number next ensuing may well be significative of the new.

Now none can deny that very much the greater number of Fonts are in this shape. To prove this we will refer to those selected by the Cambridge Camden Society in the appendix to the second edition of their Few Words to Church-builders. There we find,

   Octagonal  Of all other shapes
 In Norman  15  43
 Early English  19  30
 Decorated  24  1
 Perpendicular  57  2
 Total  115  76

Now, it is to be remembered, that the superior convenience of a cylindrical or circular form, together with the wont of Norman Architects rather to symbolize facts than doctrine, accounts for the comparatively small number of octagonal Fonts in that style: in later ages their preponderance is overwhelming.

The symbolism sculptured on the sides of the Font hardly falls under our consideration in this place. And besides, it has been fully detailed in the publications of the Cambridge Camden Society, and of Mr. Poole. Whether the general octagonal uses of piers may not arise from a similar design, we do not pretend to decide.

One of the most apposite illustrations in corbels, consists in three fishes intertwined in an equilateral triangle; and thus typifying our regeneration in the Three Persons of the Ever-Blessed Trinity. For it need not be said, that the fish is the emblem of the Christian, as being born again of water. The mystical vesica piscis of this form () wherein the Divinity, and (more rarely) the Blessed Virgin are represented has no reference, except in its name to a fish; but represents the almond, the symbol of virginity, and self-production.


We will notice in the third place, the symbolical representation of the great Doctrine of the ATONEMENT, in the ground lines and general arrangement of our churches.

As soon as ever Christianity possessed Temples of Her own, the cruciform shape was, we have seen, sometimes adopted. And so, as we all know, has it continued down to the present day. England, perhaps, has fewer examples of Cross churches than any other country: the proportion of those which bear this shape being not so much as one in ten. In France, on the contrary, the ratio would probably be inverted. Into the reason of this remarkable difference we shall not now enquire: but will merely remark, that many churches which do not, in an exterior view, appear cruciform, are nevertheless, from their internal arrangements, really so. The Transepts do not project beyond the Aisles: but have distinct Transept Arches, and a window of much larger dimensions than those in the aisles. This principally occurs in City churches, or where the founders were confined for want of room. And this is the case as well in churches which have Aisles to the Chancel, as in Godalming, Surrey, as where the Nave alone has them, as in Holy Rood, Southampton. They will be distinguished readily on the outside by the Northern and Southern gable. In some Cathedral churches, there is a double cross: in York, this perhaps signifies the metropolitical dignity of that Church: in other cases, it was probably merely a method of imparting greater dignity to the building. Some churches,--though they are not frequent,--are in the form of a Greek Cross: that is, the four arms are all of equal length. Darlington, Durham, is an example: in this case there is a central tower. In some, as at Westminster, Gloucester, and S. Albans, the choir runs westward of the transept; in Seville, almost the whole of the choir is locally in the Nave: in others, as Ely, it does not extend westward so far. These peculiarities, curious in themselves, do not affect the symbolism: and probably no modification of meaning is to be attached to them.

Mr. Lewis has asserted, that in early churches, a Cross was marked on the pavement, the upper part running into the Chancel, the arms extending into the transepts, and the body occupying the Nave. And some such arrangement, or rather the traces of it, we have ourselves perhaps noticed. The reason it was given up, was probably the anathema pronounced by the second o3cumenical Council, on those who should tread on that Holy Symbol.

Thus, in the ground plan, the Cross of CHRIST was preached. It is often said, that the adjacent chapels, more especially the Lady Chapel, obscured the symbolism. But it must be remembered that a ground plan can only be judged of in two methods: either from a height above, for example, the tower of the church; or when marked out on paper. It is surprising, in either of these cases, how easily the most complex Cathedral resolves itself to the spectator's eyes into a Cross.

In looking at the details of churches, the Cross is marked on the Dos-d'anes and plain coffin lids of the earliest times: it commences the later inscriptions on brass: it surmounts pinnacle, and gable, and porch; it is often imprinted on the jambs of the principal entrance, shewing the exact spot touched in the consecration with chrism, and possibly having reference to the blood sprinkled at the Passover on the Door Posts: and finally, in a more august form, is erected in the church yard. [It is proper to distinguish between Dedication Crosses, which are generally of considerable size, examples of which may he seen in Moor-linch, Somersetshire, and those small crosses in door jambs, as in Preston, Sussex, the use of which is not very clear, but which were perhaps intended to remind the entering worshipper to cross himself. At Yatton, Somersetshire, inside the Northern door, and towards the East, is a large quatrefoil-fashioned Cross: this perhaps pointed out a now destroyed benatura.] And here we may notice another curious and beautiful expression of Catholick feeling. It is very uncommon to find a plain Cross surmounting a church: the whole force of Christian art has sometimes been expended in wreathing and embellishing the instrument of redemption: flowers, and figures, and foliage are lavished upon it. And why?

[That there are some plain Crosses, cannot be denied,--more especially that on which the weather-cock is placed. A little consideration will, perhaps, clear up this difficulty. The Cross may be viewed in two distinct lights. It may either set forth that on which our REDEEMER suffered,--in which case it is the symbol of glory: or it may image that Cross which every true Christian is to take up,--in which case it may still be called the Symbol of Shame. In the latter signification, it may well be quite plain. But, inasmuch as our ancestors looked more to the Passion of CHRIST than to their own unworthiness, the former symbol is that which generally occurs. Yet not always on the church spire, perhaps for this reason:--the spire urges us, by its upward tendency, to press on towards our Heavenly Home,--a Home which can only be reached by the cheerful bearing of that cross by means of which (as it were) it points. The Cross therefore is here, with propriety, plain.]

Because that which was once the by-word of Pagans, the instrument of scorn and of suffering, has become the symbol of Hope and of Glory, of Joy, and of Eternal Felicity; and its material expression has altered proportionately. In that the arms frequently end in leaves and flowers, they signify the flourishing and continual increase of that Church which was planted on Mount Calvary. The Crown of Thorns is sometimes wreathed around them: but so, that it should rather resemble a Crown of Glory. The instruments of the Passion are, as every one knows, of the most ordinary occurrence. The commonest of these are,--the Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the Spear, the Scourge, the Nails, and the Spunge on the pole. But, in the Suffolk and Somersetshire churches many others are added. Their position is various: sometimes, as in Stogumber, Somersetshire, they appear amidst the foliage of a perpendicular capital: sometimes, as in the Suffolk churches, they are found in the open seats: often in bosses, often in brasses, often in stained glass; and sometimes the angel that supports a bracket holds them pourtrayed on a shield. The Five Wounds are also often found. These are represented by a Heart, between two hands and two feet, each pierced; or by heart pierced with Five Wounds as in a Brass at King's College Chapel, Cambridge. The instruments of the Passion may sometimes be seen amongst the volutes of the stem of the Churchyard Cross: examples occur at Belleville, near Havre, in Normandy, and Santa Cruz, in Madeira.

Again, the very position of our blessed SAVIOUR on the Cross as represented in the Great Rood and in stained glass, is not without a meaning. In modern paintings, the Arms are high above the Head, the whole weight of the Body seeming to rest upon them. And this, besides its literal truth, gives occasion to that miserable display of anatomical knowledge in which such pictures so much abound. The Catholick representation pictures the Arms as extended horizontally: thereby signifying how the SAVIOUR, when extended on the Cross, embraced the whole world. [However, in late stained glass, the modern position is sometimes found as in a Crucifixion represented in the East window of the North Aisle, in Wiscombe church, Somersetshire.] Thus, as it ever ought to be, is physical sacrificed to moral Truth. Perhaps for a similar reason S. Longinus is represented as piercing the Right Side, instead of the Left: and in a representation of the Five Wounds, it is the right side of the breast that is pierced, (as in a brass at Southfleet, Kent;) that being the side of the greatest strength, and thereby typifying the strength of that love wherewith our REDEEMER loved us. [But this may be doubted. For it appears pretty clear that the ancient Church considered the Right Side to have been that which was really pierced. According to modern ideas, the effusion of the water was not a miracle. S. John undoubtedly considered it not only a miracle, but one of the most extraordinary which he had to relate, seeming to stop the mouth of the objector by insisting on the fact, that he himself was an eye witness.] In some old Roods, a still further departure was made from literal Truth: the SAVIOUR was represented on the Cross, as a Crowned King, arrayed in Royal Apparel. [To this we may add the conventional representation of Royal Saints, such as S. Edmund, wearing their kingly crowns during their passion. That such conventional symbolism is natural to us may be shown by alluding (without irreverence in this connexion) to the way in which kings are always figured with crown and orb in popular prints: and even, as in a sign-post at Leighterton, Gloucestershire, King Charles II., hiding himself in the Royal Oak, is arrayed in all the insignia of majesty.] And His figure was constantly represented as larger than that of His attendants, His Blessed Mother, and S. John, thereby signifying His immeasurable superiority over the highest of human beings.

Another reference to the Atonement will be found in the deviation which the line of the Chancel often presents from that of the Nave. It is sometimes to the North, but more frequently to the South. There are many more churches in which it occurs than those who have not examined the subject would believe: perhaps it is not too much to say that it may be noticed in a quarter of those in England. Of our Cathedrals, it is most strongly marked in York and Lichfield: among the parish churches in which we have observed it, none have it so strongly as East Bourne and Bosham, in Sussex, and S. Michael's at Coventry: in all of which the most casual glance could not but detect the peculiarity of appearance it occasions. This arrangement represents the inclination of our SAVIOUR'S Head on the Cross. In Roods the Head generally inclines to the left.

Mr. Poole, after noticing the fact in York Minster, seems inclined to attribute it to a desire of evading the old foundation lines of that church, which induced the builders to deviate a little from the straight line, rather than encounter the difficulty of removing this obstacle. But in the first place, however much modern church builders might bethink themselves of such an expedient, it is not at all in the character of the Church architects of other days: and in the second, the explanation is applicable to York alone, one only out of many hundred churches so distinguished.


Next, we will notice the effect which the Doctrine of the Communion of Saints has exercised in the designs of churches.

In the ground plan of small churches there is little which seems to bear on this subject. The principal references to departed Saints occur in the stained glass, in the Rood screen, in niches, in the canopies of monuments, and in brasses. Monuments, in particular, often afford some beautiful ideas, among which we may notice the angels which often are seated at the head of the effigy, supporting the helmet or pillow, and seeming to point out the care of Angels for the Saints. In Cathedrals, however, the chapels have a very considerable effect upon the ground plan: though we cannot agree with Mr. Poole that such a modification of the principal lines of the building for the reception of these shrines and oratories, is necessarily uncatholick. He principally objects to the position of the Lady Chapel at the East end, above, as he expresses it, the High Altar. Now we believe the Lady Chapel to have occupied that place merely on grounds of convenience: not from any design--which it is shocking to imagine--of exalting the Blessed Virgin to any participation in the honours of the Deity. Sometimes, as at Durham, this chapel is at the West end: in country churches, it generally occupied the East end of the North or South Aisle: and sometimes is placed over the Chancel, as in Compton, Surrey, Compton Martin, Somerset, and Darcent, Kent; or over the Porch, as at Fordham, Cambridgeshire. At Bristol Cathedral it is on the North side of the Choir. That the position of the Lady Chapel at the East end adds greatly to the beauty of the building will hardly be denied, on a comparison of York, or Lincoln, or Peterborough with Litchfield, as it now is.

Project Canterbury