Friday, February 16, 2007

Christian Symbolism

Jan van Eyck or Johannes de Eyck (c. 1385 – July 9, 1441)
The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin
Wood, 66 x 62 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

As in other aspects of Christianity, Christian Art and Architecture uses signs and emblems to teach and present religious truths.

With increasing secularisation, standardisation and popularisation of culture as well as of worship and church life, there is a risk of losing the rich language of Christian symbolism and seasonal observances.

In Early Christianity, symbols were used as a secret sign among the faithful during times of persecution. The dove, the lyre and the ICHTHYS were such signs and symbols.

It was during the Middle Ages in the West that symbolism reached its zenith. Everything in Nature and daily life was invested with symbolic meaning. People were encouraged to see symbolic meaning in the most trivial event. Bestiaries are full of such "hidden meanings".

In all the works of Jan van Eyck or Johannes de Eyck (c. 1385 – July 9, 1441), there are hundreds of tiny details: a scene carved on the edge of a chair, in the capital of a column, in an inlay in the floor. At first sight they might appear to be mere decoration. When examined carefully, they are found to contribute to the meaning of the whole work. The works are not just to be looked at once or twice. They are to be read and studied. They serve to teach most often some important religious theme.

Some have seen symbolism as a necessary means of teaching Christian truths (especially Bible stories) to those who were illiterate. But that is not and cannot be the full story.

Words often fail where symbolism succeeds. Together words and symbols strengthen understanding.

Further, in those days language, vocabulary and grammar were not standardised. Printing was not known. In what is now modern Italy, someone who lived in modern day Milan would probably not understand someone just come from Syracuse. Often, language separated people who only lived for what we would regard as short distances, such as fifteen miles. Symbols were a common language for the faithful from different backgrounds. Like Latin, it could be a means of universal comunication.

Symbols were succinct and immediate reminders to believers of God`s sovereignity over all Creation. They memorialised God`s presence and action in the lives of humanity.

Symbols and signs covered Colours, Numbers, Seasons, Patterns, Vestments, Churches and their "Furniture".

The importance of the trademark, the graphic arts in advertising, Industry, Commerce and Political parties , and the design right all underline the continual importance of symbols and signs in modern life.

For those interested in Christian symbolism especially in the Middle Ages, there are two good websites which provide good clear and succinct expositions of some of the most common symbols:

Symbols in Christian Art and Architecture

Christian Symbolism