01 April 2017

SYMBOLIC LANGUAGE

Part 6 of 10 of the Lecture Invention and Exaltation, which I first delivered on 14 September 2015, to open an exhibit of my artwork at Franciscan University of Steubenville.



The arrangement and disposition of sacred art belong to the fathers because they say the same things as the fathers, in the same manner. Patristic language, whether written or painted, bears more meaning in its symbolic senses than in its literal sense.

The four winged creatures that surround Jesus Christ in so many holy images are those that appeared to the prophet Ezekiel and later to St. John. They are symbols of the four Evangelists. The man represents St. Matthew, whose book begins with a genealogy, a record of men. The ox is a sacrificial animal, and the Gospel of St. Luke opens with St. Zachary offering sacrifice at the Temple. The lion represents St. Mark, whose book begins with a voice crying, or roaring like a lion, in the wilderness. The eagle was believed to gaze directly into the sun, and the Gospel of St. John opens with insight into impossibly dazzling truths. In art, the man and the eagle are often given higher position, for the Evangelists they represent received their knowledge from direct witness rather than hearsay.

The apocalyptic beasts are polysemic; they represent also the life of Jesus Christ, respectively His Incarnation, His sacrificial death, His Resurrection (He couched as a lion; who shall rouse him up?) and His Ascension. Furthermore, they are symbols of Christian virtues: rationality, self-sacrifice, courage and contemplation.

The church fathers saw everywhere in the Old Testament prefigurements of the New. I included the Sacrifice of Isaac as a marginal picture to this Crucifixion; the association of the two sacrifices is made again and again in liturgical texts and theological writings. The death of Eleazar Maccabee beneath a war elephant I drew also; as far as I can tell, this prefigurement was first noted in the Speculum Humanæ Salvationis, an book of typologies from the early fourteenth century. But the Speculum’s author did not alter the ancient tradition; rather, he progressed it according to the established and most beautiful order of growth. The symbol was latent in the event from its occurrence; the manner of thought that reveals it was taught by Jesus Christ Himself: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

The Crucifixion scene, as traditionally arranged, is itself full of symbolic meaning. Jesus Christ is the new Adam, whose death on the cross redeems the original sin. Just as Eve, the bride of the first Adam, came forth from his side while he slept, so the Church, the bride of Christ, came forth from his side while he slept in death on the cross; I here paraphrase St. Augustine. The blood and water that pour from the opening in the new Adam’s side represent the two most important sacraments: Eucharist and Baptism. The wound is almost invariably depicted on Christ’s right side, for it was from the right side that Adam’s rib was taken. To the right side of the cross (from Christ’s perspective) appear the symbols of the new covenant: the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Good Thief and the sun. The moon, whose indirect light represents the old covenant, is to the left. This is a theological lesson, not a record of the day’s astronomy.

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