Not only sacred history and secular history, but even natural history is allegorical. To quote Emile Mâle again:
As the idea of his work is in the mind of the artist, so the universe was in the thought of God from the beginning. God created, but he created through His Word, that is, through His Son. The thought of the Father was realized in the Son through whom it passed from potentiality to act.... The world therefore may be defined as a thought of God realized through his Word. If this be so then in each being is hidden a divine thought; the world is a book written by the hand of God in which every creature is a word charged with meaning.... True knowledge, then, consists not in the study of things in themselves (the outward forms) but in penetrating to the inner meaning intended by God for our instruction, for in the words of Honorius of Autun, every creature is a shadow of truth and life. All being holds in its depths the reflection of the sacrifice of Christ, the image of the Church and of the virtues and vices.Medieval authors produced books called bestiaries, herbals and lapidaries, in which the symbolism of the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms are explained. It is from the bestiary that I know to surround a scene of the Resurrection with a whale, a phoenix, a pelican and a lion. According to one bestiary:
If the pelican has brought offspring into the world, when these grow up they strike their parents in the face. The parents strike back and kill them. After three days, their mother opens her own breast and side, and lies on her young, pouring all her blood over the dead bodies, and thus her love brings them back to life. So Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the author and originator of all creatures, begot us, and, when we did not exist, He made us. But we struck Him in the face; as Isaiah said: I have begotten sons and raised them up, but they have despised me. Christ ascended the Cross and was struck in the side; blood and water came forth for our salvation, to give us eternal life.Of the lion, it says:
When the lioness brings forth her cubs, they come into the world dead. She watches over them for three days, until on the third day the father comes, blows in their faces, and awakens them to life. In the same way the Almighty Father awoke Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day, as Jacob says: He couched as a lion; who shall rouse him up?The temptation, for a modern man, is simply to snicker at the zoological naïvety of these words; admittedly, no one has observed these behaviors in pelicans or lions in a very long time. But the authors of the bestiaries were working with the best knowledge they had, and their being mistaken in the details does not prove that their method of interpretation was fallacious. If we no longer find symbols of Christ in the behavior of pelicans and lions, is it because they are not there, or is it because we have ceased to look for them? Were we to embrace again a theophanic worldview, might not our current knowledge yield even more profound symbols?
At least one sacred artist of the twentieth century thought so. In 1911, the Spanish priest Felix Granda wrote:
Through the microscope we can see the infinitely varied microörganisms; more powerful images have never come to the imagination of the artist. Should we not take advantage of this immense arsenal of scientific data that they provide to us, to make richer and more varied our decorations, and to teach the truth contained in the verse of the Kingly Prophet: O Lord, Thy thoughts are exceeding deep!?When I first read these words, they were especially resonant because I had already begun to incorporate microbiological forms in my ornament, and to consider their symbolic possibilities.
Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, translated by Dora Nussey, (New York: Icon Editions, 1972).
Bestiary, translated by Richard Barber, (London: The Folio Society, 1992).
Felix Granda, Mi Propósito, (Madrid: Talleres de Arte, 1911).