28 August 2017


Part 6 of 9 of the Lecture Heavenly Outlook, which I recently delivered to the Catholic Art Guild on 12 August 2017.

Allegory exists not only in the sacred scriptures, but also in that other book written by the finger of God, the natural world. For the invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. 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.... 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.... All being holds in its depths the reflection of the sacrifice of Christ, the image of the Church and of the virtues and vices.
I have long been fascinated by the natural order established on the first days of Creation. By dividing day and night, God created temporal realms; then, by dividing the sky from the waters above and below it, He created vertical realms; then, by dividing the land from the sea, He created horizontal realms. God established the dimensions qualitatively, not quantitatively; He established them by making the perceptible differences between light and dark, sky and water, land and sea - not by extending homogenous time or space, as along the axes of a Cartesian grid. Indeed, in the prelapsarian world, time and space did not have the passing and distancing effect that they have in the fallen world; they were immeasurable in these terms.

On the fourth, fifth and sixth days, God revisited the dimensions in sequence, filling them with things that move: celestial bodies to mark seasons and days and years; creatures that fly upward and that swim downward and that move horizontally over the land. William of Conches wrote:
The beauty of the world lies in things being in their own element, such as stars in the sky, birds in the air, fish in water, men on the Earth.
The scriptural taxonomy of celestial bodies and terrestrial creatures considers first their placement and movement relative to the Earth, whether around it, above it, within it or on it. This is, of course, utterly unlike the astronomical and biological categories that are now presented to us as scientific fact. But it is neither arbitrary nor ignorant.


There is a difference between a scientific discovery - such as the existence of the moons of Jupiter, or of the American continents and all the plants and animals therein - and a change in perspective. I contend that with a true perspective, the order of the world presented in holy writ, traditional Christian theology and Gothic art remains valid.

We are, of course, told that this is not so; that it is, for example, an irrefutable fact that the Earth moves around the Sun and not the other way around. But is this a scientific discovery, or a change in perspective? Although the outlook of Galileo remains fixed in the modern mind, the physical science of the past century actually seems to favor the latter answer, for it considers centrality an arbitrary designation, considers rest and motion relative terms.

If the solar system were imagined as an orrery floating untethered in a large room, heliocentrism would be the worldview that results from standing on the floor, grabbing the model sun and holding it still while the planets whirl about it. Geocentrism would be the worldview that results from grabbing the Earth instead; were you to do this, you would see the Sun and the Moon orbiting the Earth, the other planets orbiting the Sun, and their own moons orbiting them. None of the internal workings of the orrery would break either way. Physical science cannot say that the choice to grab the Earth is wrong per se, although it cannot say that it is right per se either; you could just as easily grab the asteroid Ceres or Halley’s Comet. But if there is a reason to adopt a particular worldview based on revelation rather than experiment, the question is no longer scientific.

Inescapably, the perspective of the sacred scriptures and Christian tradition is geocentric; this is the literal sense of their words, which remains sacrosanct. The Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus Christ descended into Hell and ascended into Heaven. Presumably, this means something more profound and more sublime than that Jesus Christ went toward the center of the Earth, and then went away from its surface in the opposite direction - an ineffable movement between ontological levels, perhaps. But greater meanings do not obliterate lesser meanings. The witnesses to these holy events described them as descent and ascent, and in no other way. Nobody who believes that the Creed actually means something can maintain that they intended these words to be arbitrary, or entirely unrelated to descent and ascent as humanly understood and experienced.

When I draw the Descent into Limbo, I have no choice but to represent it as a movement down through the ground, and when I draw the Ascension into Heaven, I have no choice but to represent it as a movement up through the sky.


Works quoted or referenced:

Hugh of St. Victor, De Tribus Diebus, quoted by Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, translated by Hugh Bredin, (Yale University Press, 1986).

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

William of Conches, In Timæum, quoted by Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, translated by Hugh Bredin, (Yale University Press, 1986).

Wolfgang Smith, Ancient Wisdom and Modern Misconceptions, (Tacoma WA: Angelico Press, 2013).