Project Canterbury

Embroidery for Church Guilds

By Sarah Cazneau Woodward

New York: James Pott & Co., 1896.

Part I. The Symbolism of Ornaments.


THOSE of us who live in old or settled communities, where the decorums of public worship are observed, become unconsciously habituated to many sights and sounds which stand for a very high degree of artistic sensibility. We notice and admire the symbolism of a beautiful stained-glass window, or an elaborate piece of church embroidery. We recognize the meaning of the emblems and can explain them to others, but probably very few of us ever cast our thoughts back to the time when these symbols first began to stand for the thoughts which they express--thoughts in many cases too deep or too fraught with meaning to be lightly uttered.

We see, for instance, wrought in a church window, the figure of a lion, and we connect it at once with the thought of St. Mark, or of our [13/14] Lord Himself, "the Lion of the tribe of Judah." We see the ship, and our thoughts are called to the Ark of Christ's Church, and the safety of those therein. These figures have not always had this meaning, and the development of an exact and arbitrary thought for each and every symbol forms a most interesting theme of study.

The use of symbols to express deep religious emotion arose from stern necessity. The Church of Christ from the year 64 to 303 was bitterly and relentlessly persecuted by the Roman Emperors. Even death did not save the bodies of the early Christians from the fury of their enemies, and it became necessary, in order to preserve their graves from violence, that hidden burial places should be made. One by one these were hollowed out of the sandstone and earth in and near Rome and the entrance ways were carefully concealed by various cunning devices. There were about sixty catacombs in the suburbs of Rome, and some of these are still visited by pilgrims. Before 350 A.D. persecution had entirely ceased, and Christians thereafter were interred in the usual manner.

In these catacombs Christian symbols are painted or carved on the slabs which enclose the [14/15] bodies of the dead. The early Church had suffered so much at the hands of pagans and idolaters that they had a great horror of any representation which could be construed into an object of worship. Their sculptors were forbidden to make images for heathen temples, and, being debarred from the use of forms which had idolatrous significance, they were limited to Bible scenes, and to a very few designs which grew to have as definite a meaning as any combination of words.

One of their most beautiful and consolatory designs was that of the Good Shepherd, with which we are all so familiar, carrying a lamb in His arms or with His sheep feeding around Him. Whenever that feeble little band saw that design it might bring to mind the comforting thought that even in the midst of their enemies they would be provided for, and that, after this life had ended, they would dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The fish they learned to recognize not only as a type of Christ, but as Christ as the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. When they saw the Chi Rho monogram, with the palm branches encircling it, they knew that there was the last resting place of a martyr, who had conquered death through faith in the Holy Name. [15/16] A limited use was made of representations of wild animals, with reference to scriptural allusions, but it was not until the eleventh or twelfth centuries that arbitrary and mystical meanings became permanently attached to them.

The use of the sacred monograms is endeared to us by many centuries of devotion. Perhaps the one most frequently seen in our churches today is the I H S or the I H C. This variation is due to the fact that in Greek there are two forms of the letter sigma, one shaped like our S, the other like our C. Many people believe that these three letters are the initials of the three words, Jesus Hominum Salvator (I and j being identical in Latin) which mean Jesus the Saviour of Men. The Jesuits translated it Jesu Habemus Socium (We have Jesus for our Friend). Still another interpretation is In Hoc Signo. In this sign (conquer). But these are all mistakes. The Greek word for Jesus is IhsouV (Jesous). In writing the monogram the first two and the last letters are used, and thus we have I H C, or I H S, according to which form of the letter sigma is taken. Tyrwhitt, in "Greek and Gothic," says that St. Bernardino of Siena was the first to popularize this device.

[17] The IC XC is still another variation, being the first and last letters of the Greek words Jesus Christ -- J --s Ch---s. The line above indicates that the intervening letters are omitted.

Another sacred monogram, almost as frequently seen as the I H S, is the Chi Rho monogram, or the cross of Constantine. The story of this device is a long one, but worth the telling. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, who had so much to do with the framing of the Nicene Creed, was an intimate friend of the Emperor Constantine, and was chosen by him to write his life. Among other personal details the Emperor told Eusebius this story.

It was on the eve of a great battle with Maxentius, and Constantine was feeling more than doubtful concerning its issue. He thought of offering libations to the gods for his success, but there were so many of them he feared that if he made special libations to any he would arouse the jealousy of the others. He already knew a little of the monotheistic worship of the Christians, and was well disposed toward the new religion. Finally, he prayed to God to assist him, and to send him a sign from heaven that victory should crown his arms.

[18] About three o'clock in the afternoon, when the sun was just beginning to descend, a wonderful sight was seen by Constantine and his whole army, encamped on the plain. A flaming cross appeared in the sky, with the words made by configurations of stars, EN TOUTO NIKA, "In this Conquer." The army as well as the Emperor was awe-stricken at this tremendous sight.

That night the Emperor had a dream in which he was admonished to place on his soldiers' shields the heavenly sign. So on every shield was placed the monogram of the two first letters of the name of Christ, X. P. (Chi Rho), and he led them out to victory at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, A.D. 312. Afterward he had the first artists of Rome make the Labarum or imperial banner with this monogram and legend upon it, enriched with gold and precious gems. From this time persecution of the Christians grew less and finally ceased.

The acrostic for which the figure of the fish is used also dates from the times of the catacombs. The Greek words for Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Saviour, are IehsouV CristoV Qhou UioV Swthr. The initials of these words are I, [18/19] ch, th, u, s, which form the word ichthus, the Greek word for fish. So the mere representation of a fish, often most rudely carved or painted, signified to those whose eyes were opened to apprehend spiritual verities, both the humanity and divinity of Christ, and His redeeming work.

Oftentimes this figure of a fish was little more than a pointed oval, to which eyes, fins, gills, and a tail were added. This pointed oval came to be known in later days as vesica piscis, the air-bladder of a fish. A pointed oval is the background in which the figure of Christ is often drawn and painted. In the middle ages it was the custom to enclose the seals of the laity and lay corporations with a circle, but those of a bishop or ecclesiastical corporation were enclosed by the vesica, and this custom still continues. It is said that the shape of a lancet window is derived from a vesica, being its exact half.

Still another monogram of Christ is made from the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the Alpha and Omega, from the words "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last" (Rev. xxii. 13). This device is often seen in connection with the Chi Rho monogram.

[20] Occasionally an emblem was used by the early Christians which indisputably dates from pagan times. Such a one is the palm branch. The victors in the Olympic games were given branches of palms. But their use in Christian symbolism is justified by the allusion in the Revelation to those who "came out of great tribulation" as "clothed with white robes and palms in their hands" (Rev. vii. 9). It is, and always will be, an accepted emblem of victory.

The anchor is a device found in the catacombs, and is a symbol of hope, from the words of St. Paul, "Which hope (the life everlasting) we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast" (Heb. vi. 19). This hope in another and a better world, conveyed to the mind whenever the shnple device was seen, was, like the thought of the Good Shepherd, one of infinite comfort and refreshment to those who found in the shelter of the catacombs their only safe meeting place.

The dove, with an olive branch in its mouth, was the type of peace after confusion, rest after storm, from the message of the dove to Noah in the ark. There are two significancies of the dove, as seen in sacred art, and this is the minor meaning.

[21] Representations of our Lord Himself, on account of His human nature, are many and varied. Not only are the Good Shepherd, the lion, and the various monograms recognized emblems, but the pelican, whose life-blood was said to nourish her young, and the peacock, whose flesh was supposed to be incorruptible, are both considered in the Bestiaries to be typical of Christ. But by far the most beautiful of all the symbols is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. "The Lamb in the midst of the Throne" (Rev. vii. 17); "The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. xiii. 8); "The Lamb which taketh away the sins of the world" (St. John i. 29), are some of the many scriptural passages which gave rise to this idea of representing Christ as a lamb without spot.

This device is also to be found in the catacombs. On a gilded glass vessel taken from one of the catacombs, and now in_the Vatican Museum, the Lamb of God is represented as standing on Mount Zion, from which flow the four rivers of Paradise, typifying the four Evangelists, and uniting in the river Jordan. On sculpture of the fifth and sixth century it is found with a nimbus inscribed with the Chi Rho, and little by little it was changed, until in the tenth [21/22] century it is found as now generally used in Christian art, carrying a cross from which floats a banner, the whole figure enclosed in a medallion.

In striking contrast to the many devices which are used to symbolize Jesus Christ is the extreme rarity of those used to typify the First and Third Persons of the Blessed Trinity. There is but one symbol in use throughout the entire range of early Christian art to indicate God the Father, and this is what is known as the Dextera Dei, the Hand of God. In scenes where the power of God is directly manifest, or where the Almighty is described in the Scriptures as having direct intercourse with man, the hand symbol is used, most often with the first two fingers outstretched, the two others closed. This symbol has its origin in innumerable texts of the Old Testament, particularly of the Psalms, and in such passages in the New as where St. Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, says that Jesus was "by the right hand of God exalted" (Acts ii. 33).

The dove, descending from above, with wings outstretched, and a halo or glory around, is always a symbol of God the Holy Ghost, from the words of St. John, "I saw the Holy Spirit descending from heaven like a dove" (St. John i. 32). [22/23] The dove, as an emblem of peace, carries the olive branch in its mouth.

The ship, denoting the "fellowship of Christ's religion," is a figure in more constant use than we perhaps realize. The nave of a church, that part where the congregation gathers, is so called from the Latin word navis, meaning a ship.

Many other religious devices, many scriptural scenes and occasional classical scenes are found painted or graven in the catacombs, but only those which are suitable for reproduction in needlework are considered here. Those which have already been mentioned have been in constant use for church ornament from the early days of Christianity, and will always be favorites with people whose predilection is for primitive church art.


It is interesting to compare illuminated manuscripts of different dates, and to notice how, in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the floriation, which was the chief ornament apart from the lettering and gorgeous coloring, gave place to forms of wild beasts used to enrich the borders and to elaborate the huge capital letters which were in vogue at the time. All this came from various curious and perverted [23/24] notions regarding the mystical meaning of the wild animals mentioned in Scripture.

In the middle ages the bulk of the world's knowledge was pitifully small, as compared with that of to-day. Even the most thoughtful and learned medieval scholars were ignorant of the facts of natural history and zoology which are commonplaces to the youth of the present time. Their curiosity was insatiable and their credulity almost inconceivable. They eagerly seized upon the fantastic stories which travellers of all epochs, from Herodotus to Sir John Mandeville, had brought home, added to their grotesqueness by every imaginable accretion, and then deduced from these monstrosities strange and subtle spiritual analogies.

These stories appear in some medieval manuscripts called Bestiaries, in which many wild animals are carefully described, and a connection shown to exist between their physical properties and some dogma of the Church. A necessity seemed to exist, in the minds of the writers of these Bestiaries, to explain the various passages in the Bible which refer to wild animals, in a realistic and material manner. Many of these analogies are far-fetched and repulsive, but some [24/25] of them are most beautiful and poetic, and it is these refined and spiritual meanings of which the Church has made use. This is the source to which we are indebted for the meaning which we attach to the lion, the pelican, the phoenix, and others which we more rarely see.

Besides the emblems in use in the very dawn of Christianity, and which have been preserved in the catacombs, and those for which we are indebted to the mediaeval Bestiaries, there are others of more recent origin, which are both beautiful in effect and devotional in feeling and which are, and deserve to be, widely used.

The cross occurs in many different forms. The Latin cross is the one with which we are most familiar. The Greek cross has four limbs of equal length. The St. Andrew's cross is shaped like the letter X. The Tau cross is like the letter T. This is the cross with which the Israelites marked the door-posts of their houses after the slaying of the sacrificial lamb. The Maltese cross is eight-sided and the Jerusalem cross is like the Maltese cross with a deep indentation on each limb. The Canterbury cross is Y-shaped like the orphreys of needlework which ornament the chasuble of the priest. The cross used by the archbishops and [25/26] cardinals of the Church of Rome has two crossbars, and the papal cross has three. The cross potent, the cross crosslet, the cross fleurie, and many other variations, were originally devised for use in heraldic bearings, but are all suitable for religious use, as they are all changes rung on the same key.

The cross is not only a symbol, but the symbol of Christ. Whenever and wherever it is used it calls our thoughts to Him. When used as an emblem, as it is so constantly and appropriately, it signifies suffering. The cross, with the crown above, signifies suffering here, triumph hereafter.

The cross, with the crown of thorns, represents the bitterness of grief. The nail-heads form another emblem of the depths of anguish. "They pierced my hands and my feet" (Ps. xxii. 16). The passion flower, because of the peculiar shape of its pistils, stigmas and rays, has had, from the time the Jesuits discovered it in Central America, a mystical meaning, as bearing within itself the implements of the crucifixion. The sheaves of wheat and the vine, from which come the bread and the wine for the Holy Eucharist, are the accepted symbols of the Lord's Supper. "I am the True Vine" (St. John xv. 1); "I am the [26/27] Bread of Life" (St. John vi. 35), are texts which will occur to one in this connection.

The clover leaf or trefoil, and the fleur-de-lis or lily of France, from their three-fold structure, are emblematic of the Trinity. The triangle and three interlaced circles are other accepted emblems of the Trinity, each circle being emblematic of eternity.

There is another triangle, which beautifully sets forth the Unity of the Godhead and the Trinity of the Persons therein. It consists of a circle enclosed in a triangle, with circles at each angle and lines connecting these with the centre, each bearing the name of one of the Persons of the Trinity. This device is first seen in a French manuscript of the sixteenth century, and is a favorite subject for representation in stained glass.

The rose and the lily, as minor emblems, are frequently used, the allusion being to the verse, "I am the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley" (Song of Solomon ii. 1). The rose usually seen in ecclesiastical art is one with five equal petals and the tip of a leaf showing between each two petals. It is called the Tudor rose, and, on the arms of Queen Mary of England and her [27/28] husband, Philip the Fair, is seen quartered with the royal arms of Spain. On King Arthur's Round Table, which is still preserved in Winchester Cathedral, England, the rose is the central ornament, in the same shape which is used to-day. Its symbolic meaning is religious ecstasy.

The pomegranate, when burst open with its seeds displayed, is an emblem of the spread of the Christian religion. The shell and three interlaced fishes are both typical of baptism, one by water, the other in the name of the Trinity. The star is an emblem of the Nativity, and is thus especially suitable for Christmas decorations. "When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy" (St. Matt. ii. 10).

The symbols of the four Evangelists, the winged man, the winged lion, the winged bull, and the eagle, are frequently and increasingly seen. These emblems give emphasis to the different aspects of Christ as seen by each of the four Evangelists. St. Matthew gives us His human genealogy, and dwells especially on His humanity; St. Mark on His kingliness; St. Luke on His sacrificial life, and St. John on His divinity. As the eagle flies so near the sun, so was [28/29] he the disciple most dear to Jesus. When these symbols are combined in one it is called a Tetramorph.

Besides these, each apostle and every prominent saint has his own peculiar attribute. St. Peter is known by his keys, St. James by his scallop-shell, St. Agnes by her lamb, St. Catherine by her wheel, and so on. Many of these saints' emblems are beautiful and touching, but some are grotesque or painful. The rays, or glory, are seen in connection with many of these emblems. It is particularly suitable in connection with the cross, the dove or the hand.

It will be seen from the foregoing that the meaning of each symbol used in Christian art is perfectly well defined, and that many of them are suited to one season of the Christian year and glaringly inappropriate at another. The keynote of Easter and Christmas is joy; of Lent, penitence and humiliation; of the Feasts of Martyrs, love triumphant over death; of Trinity-tide, the three-fold nature of the Godhead; and of Good Friday, grief and mourning. The Church, many hundreds of years ago, decided the colors for use at these seasons, and though there seems to be a wide range of choice in designs for ornamental [29/30] work, in point of fact this option must be restricted by most careful and rigid attention to the specific meaning of each symbol. By bearing in mind the fact that what metaphor or figurative speech is to the understanding, a symbol is to the eye, bringing vividly to the mind some other object than itself, of which it is the type, church embroidery can never degenerate to what there is danger it may become, a mere mass of ornament appealing to the outward gaze, and not to the spiritual perception of the beholders.


Many of the beautiful hangings which are now being made in the work-rooms of the Sisters, and in ecclesiastical outfitters' rooms, are further enriched with figure designs and with illuminations, and there seems to be no limit which can be placed to the beauty and elaboration of this work. Figure subjects open an inexhaustible field. Cherubs' faces, full length figures of angels and saints, the apostles with their emblems, even our Lord Himself, as crucified, as arising from the grave, as throned in glory, may [30/31] all be seen most beautifully wrought in needlework on modern hangings.

As in painting, so also in embroidery, the highest possible achievement is the portrayal of the human countenance. It is infinitely more painstaking and laborious to delineate faces and hands with needle and silk than with brush and color. Fifty fine stitches accomplish no more than one touch of the brush, yet the work can be done, and in much the same way, curving the lines which indicate the curve of cheek and chin, shading the temples and under the eyes, and defining distinctly, though not harshly, the articulations of the fingers and wrists. The work is done with the finest needle that will carry a split length of filo floss.

The pinions of the angels are embroidered in the faintest shades of blue, gray and pink, with touches of white and gold for the high lights. The draperies present no especial difficulties.

Some of the most beautiful specimens of modern altar hangings are embroidered with texts of Scripture. Very frequently the super-frontal is so ornamented, as its length and narrowness make lettering exceedingly effective. Illumination is a work of so extreme antiquity, and so full of [31/32] religious association that it seems most fitting that it should be revived, though the letters are wrought and not painted. The alphabet used, and there are many from which to choose, should be an elaborate one, yet the letters must be distinct, so that the words can be easily read at a distance.

A most exquisite example bears, on a surface of silk damask, several passages relating to the Holy Eucharist, in Latin, worked in gold-colored silk, with small Maltese crosses separating each word from the next.

There is a growing fancy for using Latin texts on altar hangings, and on stoles as well, and there is much to be said in its favor. The terseness, the dignity, and above all the ecclesiastical associations of the Latin language, make its use exceedingly appropriate in certain places and at certain seasons. Moreover, the Latin words for a text are often more beautiful, or lend themselves more readily to the space for which they are intended, than their English equivalents. They demand sumptuous material and exquisite needle-work, and would not be in keeping except where the architecture of the Church were correct and massive in every detail. They seem especially appropriate for the Trinity season, at the [32/33] time when we commemorate that "most ancient of all mysteries." The objection to them, that they cannot be "understanded of the people" is not so valid as it was in pre-Reformation times, and need not be considered insuperable in any city congregation of cultivated people.

"Powdering" is the repetition of any small design, the lily or the rose, the pomegranate or the fleur-de-lis, at regular intervals over the surface to be embroidered. It can be used either alone, or to embellish the plain part of a hanging which has a chief design. Like illumination, powdering is a survival of ancient usage, and its effect is exceedingly decorative and good.

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