Certainly, some of the notions that Christians of apostolic, patristic and medieval times held are provably false; I feel no obligation to depict these. The Ptolemaic model of the solar system does not match what we see in the night sky. No one-to-one correspondence exists between the seven notes of the musical scale and the planets, because there are more than seven planets. But it remains possible for us to look at the universe with what Maximus the Confessor calls symbolic vision, apprehending in whatever we see the invisible reality beyond it.
The Sun is a traditional symbol of the New Testament; Jesus Christ is called the Sun of Justice. The association remains apt, and even becomes more apt now that the Sun is recognized as an orbital focus of the other planets. These may be considered symbols of different saints or virtues.
The Moon, which has no light of its own but merely reflects that of the Sun, remains an apt symbol of the Old Testament. For this reason, I draw the saints of the New Testament with golden haloes, resembling the sun, and the saints of the Old Testament - all the patriarchs and prophets who descended into Limbo before the death of Christ - with silver haloes, resembling the Moon. Most of these are crescents, but those behind the heads of men and women who stood in the presence of the incarnate Christ are full.
The side of the Moon that is hidden from the Earth is an apt symbol for God’s relationship with the Gentiles during the Old Testament; presumably it existed, but nothing about it has been divinely revealed. For that reason, in those instances when a pagan (the Sibyl of doomsday, for example) has the rôle of a prophet, I draw the halo as a crescent moon facing the opposite way.
It remains possible to interpret the stones of the Earth as symbols of virtues, as Marbod of Rennes did in his hymn on the Heavenly Jerusalem:
Sardonyx, with its threefold hue,Or to see allegories of Jesus Christ in vegetables. Adam of St. Victor, in a Christmas sequence, considered the almonds that grew on Aaron’s rod:
Sets forth the inner man to view:
Where dark humility is seen,
And chastity with snow-white sheen,
And scarlet makes his joy to bleed
In martyrdom, if faith shall need.
Christ the nut, its hull His passion,The symbolism of animals is more famous yet, and more commonly encountered in sacred art. The medieval bestiaries explained why pictures of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are juxtaposed with pictures of a pelican. A pelican, they said, feeds its dead chicks blood from a self-inflicted wound in its side, thus raising them to life; it is a type of Jesus Christ who gave us eternal life by shedding His blood on the Cross.
Closing round His human fashion,
And His bony frame its shell;
The incarnate Deity
And Christ’s tender sympathy
In the kernel mark ye well.
The temptation for the modern mind is simply to snicker at the scientific naïvety; admittedly, even I do not think that pelicans actually do this. Like the events of the Old Testament, natural facts must be literally true in order to have any symbolic validity. But the legends of medieval zoology are so charming that I hesitate to abandon them altogether; my practice now is to relegate any that are unworthy of actual belief to damask patterns or architectural ornaments; that is, they appear in my drawings only on things that are made by people.
I still respect the authors of the bestiaries, who were working with the best knowledge they had. The mistaken details do not prove the method of interpretation fallacious. If we no longer find symbols of Jesus Christ in the behavior of pelicans, is it because none are there, or is it because we have ceased to look for them? Were we again to see with a theophanic worldview, might not our current knowledge yield even more profound symbols? At least one religious artist of the early twentieth century thought so. In 1911, the priest Felix Granda wrote:
Through the microscope we can see the infinitely varied microorganisms; 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 those words, they were especially resonant, for I had already begun to incorporate microbiological forms into my ornament and consider their symbolism.
Among the animals that appear in Jesus Christ’s halo in my drawing of the Sacred Heart are chameleons and lyrebirds. In them, I see symbols of universality, for chameleons seem to contain within themselves all colors, and lyrebirds seem to contain within themselves all sounds. I hope eventually to discover animals that can stand for the other three bodily senses, so that the five together can represent the entire perceptible world worshipping its God.
Works quoted or referenced:
Otto von Simson, The Gothic Cathedral, (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1962).
Marbod of Rennes, Cives Cœlestis Patriæ, translated by John Mason Neale, Collected Hymns, Sequences and Carols of John Mason Neale, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1914).
Adam of St. Victor, Splendor Patris et Figura, translated by Digby Strangeways Wrangham, The Liturgical Poetry of Adam of St. Victor, (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench & Company, 1881).
Bestiary, translated by Richard Barber, (London: The Folio Society, 1992).
Felix Granda, Mi Propósito, (Madrid: Talleres de Arte, 1911).