FINE ART AND CHRISTIAN SYMBOLISM 

 

 

Art has been traditionally divided into several categories, and it is that portion of art called the “fine arts” that we are studying this semester.  Because there is a very limited amount of time, we are concentrating upon painting, sculpture, and a small amount of music the most, and of these, we will have to limit our discussion (for the most part) for the fine arts of the Western world (Europe and the Americas). 

 

Let us imagine that we are going to church as the very earliest Christians did.  We would meet in someone’s home or even in a catacomb.  The earliest Hebrew Christians would also meet in temple or synagogue for the “hours of prayer.”  As the young church grew, it tended to break away from the synagogue and temple. After hundreds of years of uncertainty because of severe persecution, the Roman Empire, under Constantine, legitimized the Christian religion and made it the Empire’s official religion.  The seat of the Empire was moved to Constantinople, of course, so, besides the ancient See (Diocese) of Rome, the See of Constantinople became the most prominent among the many diocese of the Christian Church.

 

            When Christianity became a more comfortable religion than it had been under persecution, a Christian culture began to develop.  The architecture of paganism gave way to the architecture of the Christian temple.  The music of paganism was replaced, at first with the austere beauty of unaccompanied Psalm singing and singing of New Testament canticles. For many years, Christians eschewed instruments in the Church.  This was partly because of the Jewish example (instruments were given up as a sign of mourning after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.). It was also the result of a reaction to the use of instruments in pagan Greek worship (the flute and guitar-like instruments were symbolic of sexual organs in Pagan rites). So  what happened in the Early Church was unaccompanied song.  Even the New Testament itself began to be codified, so Christianity had a Book instead of a loose collection of letters.  That book was called the Septuagint, because it contained seventy books.  Not everyone was in perfect agreement about what those books should be, but eventually what was very close to the modern canon of Scripture was gathered into one collection.

 

  In the earliest Christian gathering-places, symbols of Christian worship had begun to develop.  Here and there a lamb would be painted on a catacomb  to symbolize the Lamb of God; on doorsteps, a fish would appear as a sign that a Christian gathering was within (the fish was used because of the Greek letters, Icthus, which were a cryptogram for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”  It was rumored that the shroud in which Jesus was buried had the imprint of His Body, and that He had given a cloth to the king of the region of Armenia with the imprint of His Face.  From very early times, those who remembered Jesus and the Apostles developed a standard iconography of them, especially of Jesus, His Mother, Peter, and Paul.  It was not long until many of those who had been martyrs for Christ or noted Christians were commemorated in pictures which came to be called icons. 

 

            Eusebius, the church historian, declared that a woman from a New Testament story  had made a statue of Christ and erected it in her home town in gratitude for her salvation.  Although there is no way of verifying his testimony, in the Western Church sculpture became an accepted form of iconography.  The Eastern Church preferred the use of the heavily stylized icon, a painting in egg tempera, which was distinguished from the funerary portraiture of the time (you will remember that Egyptians painted likenesses of the dead on their sarcophagi, and that Greeks also painted very realistic funerary portraiture).  In the Christian  East, the portraiture of Christ and His Apostles and Saints took quite a different turn.  Perspective was not ignored but was reversed, bringing the onlooker “into the picture,” and the saints were glorified symbolically.  Faces were stylized;  martyrs were portrayed with crosses in their hands; Christ was portrayed with the Greek letters which spell out I AM.

 

In ancient paintings, you will also notice that the Virgin Mary was portrayed with the letters which stand for “Mary Theotokos.”  These signs and symbols echoed a developing theology throughout the organized Church which declared that Jesus Christ is God—truly God and truly human—with a Divine nature and a human nature, yet (of course) without sin.  Therefore, Mary was truly the (physical) birth-giver of God, only because His Divine Nature was inseparable from His Human nature.

 

During the first thousand years of the Christian Church, a breech slowly began to widen between the Eastern and Western Christians which would be reflected not only in the theologies of each, but in the art. Don’t get me wrong: both Eastern and Western Christians honored Christ as the Son of God! Both also declared that He was truly born through the miracle of the Virgin Birth. But in the West, the theology tended to set aside Christ’s Mother as somewhat out of the reach of human weakness, saved by grace ahead of her birth so that she was not born with the usual inclination to sin which is part of human nature.  This theology is very complicated, but it is unique to the Roman Catholic Church and it is called the “Immaculate Conception.”

 

While honor was given to Mary in portraiture and song, the Eastern theologians declined to think of her as sinless, feeling that that distinction was Christ’s alone among human beings. You do not see symbols relative to the Immaculate Conception in Eastern icons. However, you may see some which show the Virgin lying dead on a table-like coffin. The Apostles are standing beside the coffin, looking sad. Jesus is standing in the picture, and He is holding what looks like a baby, all wrapped in swaddling clothes, in His arms. That represents the spirit of His mother, whom He is taking to heaven.  A story appeared in the early centuries that He took her body to heaven, also.  In the Roman Church, this event is called the Assumption.  Again, Eastern theologians were reluctant to speculate about the exact nature of this event.  So, while you see Mary going up on the clouds in the West, you do not see that portrayed in the East.

 

When it was safe to build and adorn Christian churches, they were often  built magnificently.  So architecture became the handmaid of the Lord.  Music began to be codified; in fact, the earliest hymns were written as statements of faith.  The earliest extra-Biblical hymn we know of is this one:

 

O gladsome light of the holy glory of the eternal Father, heavenly, holy and blessed:  Jesus Christ!  Now that we have come to the setting of the sun, and see the light of evening, we praise God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For meet it is to worship Thee with voices of praise, O Son of God, and Giver of Life! Therefore, all the world doth glorify Thee!

 

Another early song proclaimed the equality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son:

 

            Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,

            Now and ever and unto ages of ages, Amen.

 

It was important to the Eastern Church that a distinction be made between the functions of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. St Basil the Great said that some Christians also sang, “Glory to the Father in the Son and through the Holy Spirit.”  He assured them that that was another good way of expressing the profound mystery of the Trinity.  Basil was an agreeable sort of fellow.

 

Were there no dissenters, you will ask, who disagreed with the idea of making beautiful buildings and creating portraits of Christ and the Saints?  There were.  Especially after the Moslem influence was heavily felt, these individuals questioned whether or not making icons and statuary was breaking the Commandments. They were called iconoclasts (icon-breakers). The history of the Church is the history of many arguments and agreements, and as many of you know from your Christian history, these were neither insignificant nor easy to solve.  But the large majority of early Christians sent their representative bishops to councils (as the Apostles met under the leadership of the Jerusalem church) and tried to solve the serious controversies of early Christianity.  We can learn much from what they said and how they behaved; sometimes their examples were splendid, and sometimes sad.

 

So, we see that the Christian Church throughout the Roman Empire—scattered as it was from Spain through what is now Turkey and up into France and the British Isles—began to carry with it a culture—an accepted language (Latin in the West), literature (the Bible and letters from various saints), visual art (iconography or sculpture) and even drama, because some of the ancient sermons still preserved which tell the story of the Resurrection in dramatic fashion.  The music was the Word of God in song. 

 

As you have heard, the seat of the Roman Empire moved East to Constantinople, under the leadership of Constantine. There, a rich culture developed which lasted a thousand years.  When Constantinople finally fell to the Turks, many musicians and artists fled to Italy, where they had a very important influence on the art and music developing in the West. 

 

In the two main branches of the Church, Roman and Byzantine, there were two attitudes about language and missions, both of them valid to some extent.  The Eastern Church desired that the Bible and the Divine services be in the language of the people.  Of course, the missionaries were ministering to peoples who had no written languages (the people now called the Slavs).  They created, from the Greek alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet, and put the Bible and the Liturgy of the Church into what is now called “Church Slavonic.”  It was, at the time it was created, the language of the people.

 

The Western Church disagreed with that method of evangelism.  The Roman bishops believed that Latin should be carried into foreign lands and imposed upon foreign peoples, and that they should learn to understand the Scriptures in that language.  A sharp controversy arose over this issue.  But God used both situations for good, in spite of human stubbornness. Latin became Spanish in Spain, French in Gaul, and Portuguese in Portugal. 

 

When the languages became quite distinct, of course, the majority of the people could no longer understand Latin, either. It is said that stained-glass windows, with their Biblical stories, were created in the West to address that issue; art became pedagogic (teaching) as well as beautiful.  In the Slavic countries, the Scriptures continued to be translated into the languages of the many peoples the Byzantines encountered (there were 500 translations of the Bible sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church just before the Russian Revolution, for example).  Nevertheless, “Church Slavonic” became a common language of worship and also gradually became incomprehensible to the people it was meant to enlighten.  Here in America, many of the Greeks kept (and still keep) the original language of the Scriptures in their worship, which is very interesting, but not always enlightening to either their flock (who speak modern Greek) or to visitors (who may speak no Greek at all).  Nevertheless, I’m glad there are, in places, people who preserve the old languages. They are extremely important, especially with so many translations of the Bible available today. It is a help and a blessing to compare modern translations to the earlier versions.

 

We stand heavily indebted to the theologians, missionaries, translators, and artisans who have brought Christianity, as we understand it, to us down through the ages.  The following are some of the symbols you will find in Christian art, particularly in the older paintings and sculptures. When you see these items, know that the art is telling you a story, just as it told the people when it was painted.

 

 

SYMBOLS IN PAINTINGS, SCULPTURE, AND STAINED GLASS

 

SOME SYMBOLS USED IN ART ABOUT CHRIST:

 

The Fish (earliest), whose (Greek) letters stood for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” This symbol was used at first to cryptically identify Christian meeting places, when it was dangerous to put a sign up.

The Lamb (“Lamb of God”), sometimes shown with a red cross.

Greek Letters, such as owh, which means “I AM”. These appear in haloes in Eastern Christian iconography. (Halos are usually made of gold leaf.)

The Crowned King: Christ is often shown enthroned, with a crown on His head. He may be carryiing a scepter and orb, symbols of His power and that He rules the world. 

The Teacher: Christ may be raising one hand in blessing, and holding a book in the other hand. The book may say, “You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you, that you may go and bring…” or another such saying.  His Face is gentle.

The Judge (Pantocrator): Jesus is often shown in the arches of churches, in the person of the Judge of All.  His Face is usually very serious, even stern.

The Good Shepherd:  Jesus is shown carrying a lamb.

Christ Emmanuel:  Sometimes, Jesus is shown as a very young man or a child, again with His halo saying, “I AM.” This shows that “God-with-us” was also a young person at one time, and grew up just as you and I had to do, but He was God all the time, even when others did not recognize Him.

Face of Christ on cloth:  Symbolizes a story in which He sent His image to a king and the king was healed; Veronica wiping the Face on the way to the Cross and having the image appear on the cloth; possibly originated with the Shroud of Christ, in which He was buried, which was long said to be imprinted with His body. (There is far more evidence for this than against it, by the way.)

Crosses:  The Cross of Christ has been represented in many beautiful forms, such as the Jerusalem Cross (a square cross surrounded by four other crosses, which represent the Four Gospels), the Budded Cross, which represents the promise of the Resurrection inherent in the crucifixion; the Greek Cross (a square cross), and the Russian cross. That cross is very interesting because it shows a slanted board on which His feet rested, which slipped when He struggled to breathe during His suffering. It also represents the fact that one thief, who honored Him and asked for His mercy, was saved, and the other, who mocked Him, went to hell.  It is a lesson in miniature.

There are many more symbols relative to Christ, too numerous to name.  His robes appear in various colors, which also have meaning: red for His sacrifice, purple for His royalty, green for His being Creator of all, white for His purity and resurrection, etc.

 

The Altar: The altar in the Eastern Church is square, and it represents Christ Himself. It may be behind an icon screen, or iconostasis, and it will have a branched candlestick on it, representative of the candlestick in Revelation. In the Western Church, the altar is usually oblong in shape and it will have two candles on it, which represent the two natures of Christ: human and divine. 

 

SOME SYMBOLS USED ABOUT THE VIRGIN MARY:

 

Halo:  Like other saints and Christ Himself, Mary will be wearing a halo. The gold symbolizes the gift of the Holy Spirit. Mary’s halo will bear four letters which stand for “Mary God-Bearer, Ever Virgin.”

Crown: Sometimes, Mary will appear with a crown as Queen, especially in Roman Catholic devotion. She is believed to have great authority with Christ, being His mother.  Sometimes the crown will have twelve stars.

Stars and Moon:  Sometimes you will see Mary being taken up into heaven, and there may be an oval of twelve stars around her, and the moon at her feet.  The stars represent the Twelve Apostles and also the story in the Book of Revelation, Ch. 11,  about the “woman crowned with the sun, with the moon at her feet, and on her head was a crown of twelve stars.”  Such paintings are usually called, “The Assumption,” because Mary is shown being taken up to heaven.

Virgin and Child with St. Joseph:  Mary is often shown with Jesus as a baby or very young child and Joseph as an older man, acting more as a guardian for the family than as her husband.

Orans:  Mary is shown praying, with her hands raised. This position not only symbolizes her own prayers, but the prayers of the entire Church. It is especially popular in Eastern Christian icons.

Clothing:  Mary is usually shown in the dress of her times, and blue is the most popular color.

 

 

SOME SYMBOLS USED TO IDENTIFY OTHER SAINTS:

 

More complicated than the rather obvious symbols of Christ and Mary are the symbols used to identify saints. If a saint is holding a small cross, that individual was a martyr.  A palm symbolizes the palm of victory spoken of in the Bible. Some saints appear with special clothing, such as John the Baptist, who has wild hair and clothing, and may have wings (symbolic of his “angelic” calling) or his head on a platter (though one is one his shoulders as well). St. Mary of Egypt (not the Virgin, but a reformed prostitute) is shown in similar dress—her story is beautiful. St. Mary Magdalene may be portrayed as a penitent woman, looking solemnly at a skull (thinking about death coming and the next life) or with her alabaster jar, which some people believed she used to anoint the feet of Christ, and which brought with her to the Tomb to anoint His body.  Elijah is shown going up in a fiery chariot (he was a popular fellow, especially in Russia and Serbia).  In Eastern iconography, bishops or priests will have a robe on which is covered with crosses. (Three bishops together are usually St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory the Theologian).

Story icons might tell, in a series of pictures, the story of some saint, such as St. Nicholas.  He was a very important person, and is considered the “patron,” or special guardian, of children. He was a bishop of Smyrna and is usually pictured in bishop’s robes. He is not fat and jolly, but rather slender.  By following the sequence of the pictures, you can get an idea of St. Nicholas’ life.

The Four Evangelists, or Gospel writers are sometimes represented by pictures of the Four Beasts in Revelation who worship at the Throne. For example, you will see a lion in Venice, with a halo, representing St. Mark, who is the patron of that city.

Horns on Moses?  If you see a wonderful statue of Moses, by Michelangelo, you will see horns on his head. That is because he understood the rays of light coming from Moses’ face after he had been with the Lord to look like horns. The horns do not distract greatly from what is an absolutely magnificent statue.

 

You can add many, many symbols to the above.  Each saint had his or her symbol which told the person looking at the picture something about him or her and helped to identify as well as edify. St. Catherine had a slaughter-wheel, on which she was tortured to death. Pictures of her was so numerous that in the 19th century, the Protestant writer, Louisa May Alcott, alluded to “the fair, dead Catherine, upborne by angel wings outside her door,” and expected the reader to know what she was talking about. St. George is usually pictured as a knight killing a dragon, and saving a princess. Allegories such as this were used to mean that even someone as humble as George (whose name means “farmer” in Greek) can perform great deeds for God if he or she is “in Christ.”

 

I remember going to the Cloisters, a wonderful medieval art museum here in Manhattan, and having a guard give a lecture about some of the symbols and artwork in the room. He mentioned the unicorn, which was a symbol for Christ, and a number of other things. He had studied this because he was bored just standing there, guarding the artwork. However, some of the stories he told were not quite accurate. It is good to know the real stories behind the artwork, so that when you visit a museum, the art speaks to you in interesting ways.  Knowing Bible stories is a good place to start!

 

Look up “symbols,” “crosses,” and “icons” to give you some more interesting insights into artwork and into the faith that has come down to us since the birth of Christ.

 

SYMBOLISM IN CHURCH ARCHITECTURE AND APPOINTMENTS

 

As soon as churches began to be built, questions arose as to how to build the structures. There were some models which are still used today, such as Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) at Constantinople.  The dome was a very important symbol, and remains so in the Eastern Church.  It represents heaven, and is sometimes painted blue, with Christ the Judge at the very top inside.

 

In the Middle Ages and almost to the present, Roman Catholic churches were built on a cruciform model.  That is, they had a long middle aisle and two aisles off to the side, so if you flew over them, they looked like crosses. St. Patrick’s is like that.

 

Today, churches are often designed in the round.  The altar will no longer be in the front, facing the front wall, but will be in the middle, facing the people, to indicate that all are celebrating the service together. The altar in the modern Roman Catholic church is much less elaborate. Its appointments are also less elaborate.  Chalices that used to be made of gold, or silver lined with gold, are now sometimes made of ceramic or glass. Whereas there used to be a tabernacle, or box, on the altar with the consecrated elements of the Communion, the modern Roman Catholic church usually has that box off to the side somewhere, perhaps even in another chapel. Sometimes that is a practical matter—churches are often desecrated.  Lutheran and Episcopal churches also reserve the consecrated communion bread and wine.

 

We take it for granted that pews will be provided for our comfort.  That is not necessarily the case.  Medieval churches did not have pews, and the Russian Orthodox tradition is to stand, unless one cannot by reason of age or infirmity, throughout the service—“like a candle before the Lord,” as one person put it. Speaking of candles, they are often lighted to represent the ongoing prayers of the people. Before electricity, they were a necessity.  Oil lamps are also used in many churches; the oil, of course, represents the Holy Spirit and readiness to receive the Lord.  Oil is used to anoint people when they join the Church, and in most Roman Catholic churches, you will usually find a basin with water in it when you enter the door.  The faithful sign themselves with the Cross after they dip their fingers in the water, saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The water reminds them of their baptism. Water is consecrated at New Year’s in Eastern churches, and some water is taken home to drink in times of illness or need, or to sprinkle the homes as a reminder that they are holy unto the Lord.

 

You are also going to find a baptistry in liturgical churches—a place where people are baptized. These can be quite elaborate, and may be large or small, depending upon how baptism is administered.  Most modern churches have enlarged the size of their baptistries because they are returning to the ancient practice of baptizing by immersion.

 

FOR YOUR PORTFOLIO:  Does your church use symbols in bulletins, stained glass, or architecture? What are they? (Open Bibles, crosses, candles, etc.?)