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 IX.
Some Objections Considered.

Several objections to the symbolical system have been noticed and answered in the course of this treatise. We shall, however, devote a greater space to the consideration of one difficulty which has often been raised by opponents, and has often been felt even by such as have adopted the theory. It is said, for example, that to assert the Nave and two Aisles, or a triplet of lancets, to be symbolical of the Most Holy Trinity, is both false arid profane, when, as is almost always the case, the Aisles are much less broad than the Nave, and the three lancets are unequal both in height and breadth: whereas in the Trinity none is afore or after other, none is greater or less than another. But the difficulty seems only to arise from carrying the similitude too far: the point of resemblance is in these cases a single one: the mere trinity of the arrangement is the only particular which gives rise to the symbol. "Three my stick lines approach the shrine," sings the Poet of the Christian Year for Trinity Sunday. The number alone is answerable for the emblem. We do not deny that an equilateral triangle is a more perfect symbol of the Blessed Trinity: but even here a captious man might object to the emblem, because the angles gain greater or less prominence according" to the position in which the triangle is placed. The Catholick monogram of the TRINITY, for example, assigns to the FATHER and the SON the upper angles of a triangle standing on the third point. On the other hand the modern triangle, generally charged with the Hebrew word JEHOVAH, has the third angle uppermost. We can quite conceive these differences being thought objectionable. The case is not so strong indeed as when the three members are unequal, but still it is the same in kind and in reality.

It is a condition of emblems that the points of similitude must not be pressed too far. The material Sun indeed typifies the Sun of Righteousness: but in what particulars? in its being created, in its rising on the dark world every day, in its being matter? Surely not: but in this one point, that it brings light and heat to the earth. I AM THE DOOR, said our LORD. In what particulars, we may again ask? It would be profane to show by examples that it is only in this point; that a door is for entrance into a material house just as we enter into the Church through CHRIST. The ark, our Church teaches us, was an emblem of the Church: not in its human building, nor in its final perishing.; but in that it saved souls by water. Did the Paschal Lamb typify the Immaculate Victim in any thing more than its comparative purity and its bloody death? We need not multiply such examples.

But there is another consideration to be adduced. Our LORD'S own parables must not be pressed too far. The history of the five wise and five foolish virgins, must not be adduced to prove that the number of the lost will equal that of the saved. This may be dangerous ground, but the assertion is true. Every parable is figurative to a certain point, and no further. Not that there is much danger of persons not knowing where the line is to be drawn: any more than there would be in the case of one of a reverent mind, who was told that the triplicity of aisles and windows typified a great doctrine. The British Critic made a very just observation on this point, that it argued a great blindness of spiritual vision to deny such an emblem, because the similitude was not complete in all points. Indeed if all points answered so closely and exactly to each other, it is not clear how a similitude would differ from a fac-simile. The very notion of a thing being like another involves the fact that the two are not identical. Nothing more is found or expected, than a similarity, an analogy, in certain qualities. For in all symbolism it is quality and not essence in which resemblance is sought.

Which leads us to consider another objection sometimes urged to the effect that if a thing mean one thing it cannot mean another. For example, if the Nave and Aisles represent the HOLY TRINITY, they cannot also represent the Church militant here on earth, or in another point of view the true fold. Again, if the piers and arches set forth the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, they must not bear a part in the representation of the TRINITY together with the clerestory and triforium. But this difficulty vanishes if we remember that the resemblance, for the most part, is derived from grouping independent things together and viewing them in a particular light. We do not deny the real essential symbolism of a material result: but this its particular significancy need not obtrude itself at all times: the thing itself in other combinations, and viewed under other aspects, may acquire an additional and occasional meaning. For example, it is the union of the rose, thistle, and shamrock, which is the emblem of our United Empire: they have each their own figurative sense; in combination they acquire a new meaning. The harp is not less the emblem of Ireland, because it must primarily represent musick. Leaven was of old the symbol of wickedness: our LORD spake of the leaven of the Scribes and Pharisees: yet we hear from His own lips, The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven. [We have the highest authority for believing that one type can symbolize two things quite independent of each other, in that the Jewish Sabbath, commanded from Sinai to be observed in commemoration of the Rest after the Creation, is enforced in Deuteronomy as the representation of the rest of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage. 'Remember' says Moses, 'that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy GOD brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy GOD commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day.'--Deut. v., 15.]

Another objection is as follows: If this theory be true, how will you account for churches with nothing but a Nave, or with only one Aisle; how for churches with neither clerestory nor triforia; or, on the other hand, for those with double triforia, or with four or five Aisles? Now we never asserted that it was necessary that all, or indeed any, given things should be intentionally symbolized. We have pointed out that some things are essentially symbolical; others accidentally and occasionally. We might attempt to classify what must be symbolized in church building, and what may be. But we decline to do so because we do not think that the principles of symbolism are yet sufficiently investigated or apprehended. However in a general way, every building must, from the nature of things, have some accidents, as of material, of parts, of plan; every particular building must have particular accidents, as of use and purpose. These accidents must be symbolical, from their nature, in a general way: they may derive, from purpose added to their nature, a further or modified symbolism in a particular way. With the first sort it is that Durandus chiefly concerns himself. A building must have walls, must have roof, piers, windows, corners, and floor. For each then he finds a meaning. He does not quite neglect the second sort. Early-English windows must have a splay: the spire may have a weathercock? for these then there is an appropriate signification. So we do not mean to insist that certain things shall be symbolized; we say they may be symbolized. Perhaps when more is known, we shall be able to criticize ancient buildings, to shew their faults or their shortcomings in this particular. As it is we have framed a sort of beau ideal of a church, fully formed and developed, which we should propose as a perfect model. We are not qualified as yet to blame the ancient churches which do not come up to this ideal, but we cannot be wrong in praising such as do.

In discussing Mr. Lewis's illustrations of Kilpeck church, we touched upon the Basilican origin of churches considered as an argument against the reception of the symbolical theory. Our last remarks will apply to the same question. It has been thought quite sufficient ground for turning into ridicule the whole principle, that the Roman justice halls had three or more Aisles, or that a barn or banquetting room may have three longitudinal divisions; But what if mechanical convenience suggested the arrangement? (though we do not grant this). It is clear that many churches, many barns, and many refectories have never had a triple arrangement. It has never been asserted that every church shall have Nave and Aisles: but if a church has Nave and Aisles it will be symbolical of a great doctrine; and for this reason it is better for a church to have Nave and Aisles. Why do not such writers argue that the cross form is not symbolical, because many barns are cruciform? Now it is instructive to observe that there is a great and obvious utilitarian advantage in this shape for a barn: but not in the case of churches as anciently arranged; in which the transepts were utterly useless for the accommodation of worshippers; and in which there is a mechanical evil (as before mentioned) from the lateral pressure on the lantern piers. Yet it is undeniable that the cross form was chosen for its symbolical meaning: and this in spite of mechanical disadvantages. A mechanical reason fails here, as in the former case, in accounting for the fact. How will they account for the cross form? Their own argument tells against them. We may still further remark that in modern times we have had some curious practical lessons upon this cross form. Messrs. Britton and Hosking, in their atrocious plan for rearranging S. Mary Redcliffe church, unwittingly testified to the inconvenience, and want of any utilitarian end, of this plan by placing the pulpit under the lantern, and ranging the congregation in the four arms so as to face it. On the other hand, some modern architects confessedly employ the cross form because it allows of people arranged as in the last case, all seeing the preacher. But why do they not look deeper into things? Why have the Cross at all? Why not have an amphitheatre, an octagon, an acoustically designed Mechanicks' Institute Lecture Room? Then all could hear, all could see much better, and the building would not cost half so much. They may think that they are designing on utilitarian principles. In truth they are unknowingly, unwillingly, symbolizing the Cross.

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