26 August 2017


Part 5 of 9 of the Lecture Heavenly Outlook, which I recently delivered to the Catholic Art Guild on 12 August 2017.

The arrangement and disposition of sacred art belong to the holy fathers because they say the same things as the holy fathers, in the same manner. Allegory pervades patristic exegesis; it likewise pervades Gothic art, especially by juxtaposing scenes from the New Testament with their Old Testament prefigurements. To quote the art historian Emile Mâle:
God who sees all things under the aspect of eternity willed that the Old and New Testaments should form a complete and harmonious whole; the Old is but an adumbration of the New. To use medieval language, that which the Gospel shows men in the light of the sun, the Old Testament showed them in the uncertain light of the moon and stars.... This doctrine, always held by the Church, is taught in the Gospels by the Savior Himself: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
The Apostles Peter and Paul learned this doctrine and taught it in their epistles. They were followed by the church fathers: Origen of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo, the most prolific of them all. It was St. Augustine who articulated an important rule of symbolic exegesis, that the literal sense of the words remains sacrosanct:
Believe before all things when you hear the scriptures read that the events really took place as is said in the book. Do not destroy the historic foundation of scripture, for without it you will build in the air.... All that the scriptures say of Abraham really happened, but he is at the same time a prophetic type.
God has always written His allegory with fact. Greater meanings do not obliterate lesser meanings. Moses really saw the burning bush, and it really prefigured the Virgin Birth. The Queen of Sheba really visited Solomon’s throne, and it really prefigured the Adoration of the Magi. Abraham really led his son Isaac to the altar of sacrifice, and it really prefigured the Way of the Cross. Jonah really emerged from the great fish, and it really prefigured the Resurrection.

Another important rule is that the sacred scriptures are polysemic; there need not be a one-to-one correspondence between type and antitype. An event of the Old Testament may prefigure several events of the New; it may also be a moral instruction, or a symbol of Heaven. As Gregory the Great wrote:
For just as it happens that from one lump of gold there are some who fashion necklaces, others rings, and still others ornamental bracelets, so from one science of sacred scripture all of its interpreters gather up various ornamental embellishments, as it were, by way of innumerable understandings of the text. All of these ornamental embellishments add to the beauty of the celestial bride.

The church fathers interpreted all of the numbers that appear in the sacred scriptures symbolically, for it was God who ordered all things in number and measure and weight. Three represents divinity, for God exists in three Persons. Four represents mankind and the created world; the time and space inhabited by mankind have four basic divisions, the seasons of the year and the cardinal directions that correspond to the rivers flowing out of Paradise and (as St. Augustine noticed) to the four letters of the name Adam: anatole, dysis, arktos, mesembria.

The interaction of Heaven and Earth, of God and Man, is represented by twelve and seven, the product and sum of three and four. This is why twelve and seven appear again and again in holy writ.

St. Augustine saw in the 153 great fish caught by the Apostles on the Sea of Tiberias the means of salvation: ten commandments added to seven gifts of the Holy Ghost make seventeen, and the sum of the integers from one to seventeen is 153. He considered Gideon a prefigurement of Jesus Christ in part because the number 300 is written in Greek numerals as the cross-shaped letter Tau; thus Gideon’s army of 300 men represents the Holy Rood. Hugh of St. Victor wrote elaborate mystical treatises on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark.


Works quoted or referenced:

Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, translated by Dora Nussey, (New York: Icon Editions, 1972).

Augustine of Hippo, Second Sermon on the Old Testament, quoted in The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, translated by Dora Nussey, (New York: Icon Editions, 1972).

Gregory the Great, Sermon on Ezekiel, quoted by Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, Volume I, translated by Mark Sebanc, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998).

The Works of Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Volume X, translated by Marcus Dods, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1873).

Emile Mâle, Religious Art in France: The Twelfth Century, translated by Marthiel Matthews, (Princeton University Press, 1978).

Vincent Foster Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism, (Columbia University Press, 1938).