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VIII. ARCHITECTURAL SYMBOLISM
I WAS once rash enough to suggest in an essay "On Symbolism in Art"(1)
that "a true work of art is at once realistic, imaginative, and
symbolical," and that its aim is to make manifest the spiritual
significance of the natural objects dealt with. I trust that those artists
(no doubt many) who disagree with me will forgive me—a man of
science—for having ventured to express any opinion whatever on the
subject. But, at any rate, if the suggestions in question are accepted,
then a criterion for distinguishing between art and craft is at once
available; for we may say that, whilst craft aims at producing works which
are physically useful, art aims at producing works which are spiritually
useful. Architecture, from this point of view, is a combination of craft
and art. It may, indeed, be said that the modern architecture which
creates our dwelling-houses, factories, and even to a large extent our
places of worship, is pure craft unmixed with art On the other hand, it
might be argued that such works of architecture are not always devoid of
decoration, and that "decorative art," even though the "decorative artist"
is unconscious of this fact, is based upon rules and employs symbols which
have a deep significance. The truly artistic element in architecture,
however, is more clearly manifest if we turn our gaze to the past. One
thinks at once, of course, of the pyramids and sphinx of Egypt, and the
rich and varied symbolism of design and decoration of antique structures
to be found in Persia and elsewhere in the East. It is highly probable
that the Egyptian pyramids were employed for astronomical purposes, and
thus subserved physical utility, but it seems no less likely that their
shape was suggested by a belief in some system of geometrical symbolism,
and was intended to embody certain of their philosophical or religious
(1) Published in The Occult Review for August 1912, vol. xvi. pp.
98 to 102.
The mediaeval cathedrals and churches of Europe admirably exhibit this
combination of art with craft. Craft was needed to design and construct
permanent buildings to protect worshippers from the inclemency of the
weather; art was employed not only to decorate such buildings, but it
dictated to craft many points in connection with their design. The
builders of the mediaeval churches endeavoured so to construct their works
that these might, as a whole and in their various parts, embody the
truths, as they believed them, of the Christian religion: thus the
cruciform shape of churches, their orientation, etc. The practical value
of symbolism in church architecture is obvious. As Mr F. E. HULME remarks,
"The sculptured fonts or stained-glass windows in the churches of the
Middle Ages were full of teaching to a congregation of whom the greater
part could not read, to whom therefore one great avenue of knowledge was
closed. The ignorant are especially impressed by pictorial teaching, and
grasp its meaning far more readily than they can follow a written
description or a spoken discourse."(1)
(1) F. EDWARD HULME, F.L.S., F.S.A.: The History, Principles, and
Practice of Symbolism in Christian Art (1909), p. 2.
The subject of symbolism in church architecture is an extensive one,
involving many side issues. In these excursions we shall consider only one
aspect of it, namely, the symbolic use of animal forms in English church
As Mr COLLINS, who has written, in recent years, an interesting work on
this topic of much use to archaeologists as a book of data,(2a) points
out, the great sources of animal symbolism were the famous Physiologus
and other natural history books of the Middle Ages (generally called
"Bestiaries"), and the Bible, mystically understood. The modern tendency
is somewhat unsympathetic towards any attempt to interpret the Bible
symbolically, and certainly some of the interpretations that have been
forced upon it in the name of symbolism are crude and fantastic enough.
But in the belief of the mystics, culminating in the elaborate system of
correspondences of SWEDENBORG, that every natural object, every event in
the history of the human race, and every word of the Bible, has a symbolic
and spiritual significance, there is, I think, a fundamental truth. We
must, however, as I have suggested already, distinguish between true and
forced symbolism. The early Christians employed the fish as a symbol of
Christ, because the Greek word for fish, icqus, is obtained by notariqon(1)
from the phrase [gr 'Ihsous Cristos Qeou Uios, Swthr]—"JESUS CHRIST,
the Son of God, the Saviour." Of course, the obvious use of such a symbol
was its entire unintelligibility to those who had not yet been instructed
in the mysteries of the Christian faith, since in the days of persecution
some degree of secrecy was necessary. But the symbol has significance only
in the Greek language, and that of an entirely arbitrary nature. There is
nothing in the nature of the fish, apart from its name in Greek, which
renders it suitable to be used as a symbol of CHRIST. Contrast this
pseudo-symbol, however, with that of the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God
(fig. 34), or the Lion of Judah. Here we have what may be regarded as true
symbols, something of whose meanings are clear to the smallest degree of
spiritual sight, even though the second of them has frequently been badly
(2a) ARTHUR H. COLLINS, M.A.: Symbolism of Animals and Birds
represented in English Church Architecture (1913).
(1) A Kabalistic process by which a word is formed by taking the initial
letters of a sentence or phrase.
It was a belief in the spiritual or moral significance of nature similar
to that of the mystical expositors of the Bible, that inspired the
mediaeval naturalists. The Bestiaries almost invariably conclude the
account of each animal with the moral that might be drawn from its
behaviour. The interpretations are frequently very far-fetched, and as the
writers were more interested in the morals than in the facts of natural
history themselves, the supposed facts from which they drew their morals
were frequently very far from being of the nature of facts. Sometimes the
product of this inaccuracy is grotesque, as shown by the following
quotation: "The elephants are in an absurd way typical of Adam and Eve,
who ate of the forbidden fruit, and also have the dragon for their enemy.
It was supposed that the elephant... used to sleep by leaning against a
tree. The hunters would come by night, and cut the trunk through. Down he
would come, roaring helplessly. None of his friends would be able to help
him, until a small elephant should come and lever him up with his trunk.
This small elephant was symbolic of Jesus Christ, Who came in great
humility to rescue the human race which had fallen 'through a tree.' "(1)
(1) A. H. COLLINS: Symbolism of Animals, etc., pp. 41 and 42.
In some cases, though the symbolism is based upon quite erroneous notions
concerning natural history, and is so far fantastic, it is not devoid of
charm. The use of the pelican to symbolise the Saviour is a case in point.
Legend tells us that when other food is unobtainable, the pelican thrusts
its bill into its breast (whence the red colour of the bill) and feeds its
young with its life-blood. Were this only a fact, the symbol would be most
appropriate. There is another and far less charming form of the legend,
though more in accord with current perversions of Christian doctrine,
according to which the pelican uses its blood to revive its young, after
having slain them through anger aroused by the great provocation which
they are supposed to give it. For an example of the use of the pelican in
church architecture see fig. 36.
Mention must also be made of the purely fabulous animals of the
Bestiaries, such as the basilisk, centaur, dragon, griffin, hydra,
mantichora, unicorn, phoenix, etc. The centaur (fig. 39) was a
beast, half man, half horse. It typified the flesh or carnal mind of man,
and the legend of the perpetual war between the centaur and a certain
tribe of simple savages who were said to live in trees in India,
symbolised the combat between the flesh and the spirit.(1)
(1) A H. COLLINS: Symbolism of Animals, etc., pp. 150 and 153.
With bow and arrow in its hands the centaur forms the astrological sign
Sagittarius (or the Archer). An interesting example of this sign occurring
in church architecture is to be found on the western doorway of
Portchester Church—a most beautiful piece of Norman architecture.
"This sign of the Zodiac," writes the Rev. Canon VAUGHAN, M.A., a former
Vicar of Portchester, "was the badge of King Stephen, and its presence on
the west front (of Portchester Church) seems to indicate, what was often
the case elsewhere, that the elaborate Norman carving was not carried out
until after the completion of the building."(2) The facts, however, that
this Sagittarius is accompanied on the other side of the doorway by a
couple of fishes, which form the astrological sign Pisces (or the Fishes),
and that these two signs are what are termed, in astrological phraseology,
the "houses" of the planet Jupiter, the "Major Fortune," suggest that the
architect responsible for the design, influenced by the astrological
notions of his day, may have put the signs there in order to attract
Jupiter's beneficent influence. Or he may have had the Sagittarius carved
for the reason Canon VAUGHAN suggests, and then, remembering how good a
sign it was astrologically, had the Pisces added to complete the
(2) Rev. Canon VAUGHAN, M.A.: A Short History of Portchester Castle, p.
(1b) Two other possible explanations of the Pisces have been suggested by
the Rev. A. HEADLEY. In his MS. book written in 1888, when he was Vicar of
Portchester, he writes: "I have discovered an interesting proof that it
(the Church) was finished in Stephen's reign, namely, the figure of
Sagittarius in the Western Doorway.
"Stephen adopted this as his badge for the double reason that it formed
part of the arms of the city of Blois, and that the sun was in Sagittarius
in December when he came to the throne. I, therefore, conclude that this
badge was placed where it is to mark the completion of the church.
"There is another sign of the Zodiac in the archway, apparently Pisces.
This may have been chosen to mark the month in which the church was
finished, or simply on account of its nearness to the sea. At one time I
fancied it might refer to March, the month in which Lady Day occurred,
thus referring to the Patron Saint, St Mary. As the sun leaves Pisces just
before Lady Day this does not explain it. Possibly in the old calendar it
might do so. This is a matter for further research." (I have to thank the
Rev. H. LAWRENCE FRY, present Vicar of Portchester, for this quotation,
and the Rev. A. HEADLEY for permission to utilise it.)
The phoenix and griffin we have encountered already in our excursions. The
latter, we are told, inhabits desert places in India, where it can find
nothing for its young to eat. It flies away to other regions to seek food,
and is sufficiently strong to carry off an ox. Thus it symbolises the
devil, who is ever anxious to carry away our souls to the deserts of hell.
Fig. 37 illustrates an example of the use of this symbolic beast in church
The mantichora is described by PLINY (whose statements were
unquestioningly accepted by the mediaeval naturalists), on the authority
of CTESIAS (fl. 400 B.C.), as having "A triple row of teeth, which
fit into each other like those of a comb, the face and ears of a man, and
azure eyes, is the colour of blood, has the body of the lion, and a tail
ending in a sting, like that of the scorpion. Its voice resembles the
union of the sound of the flute and the trumpet; it is of excessive
swiftness, and is particularly fond of human flesh."(1)
(1) PLINY: Natural History, bk. viii. chap. xxx. (BOSTOCK and
RILEY'S trans., vol. ii., 1855, p. 280.)
Concerning the unicorn, in an eighteenth-century work on natural history
we read that this is "a Beast, which though doubted of by many Writers,
yet is by others thus described: He has but one Horn, and that an
exceedingly rich one, growing out of the middle of his Forehead. His Head
resembles an Hart's, his Feet an Elephant's, his tail a Boar's, and the
rest of his Body an Horse's. The Horn is about a Foot and half in length.
His Voice is like the Lowing of an Ox. His Mane and Hair are of a
yellowish Colour. His Horn is as hard as Iron, and as rough as any File,
twisted or curled, like a flaming Sword; very straight, sharp, and every
where black, excepting the Point. Great Virtues are attributed to it, in
expelling of Poison and curing of several Diseases. He is not a Beast of
prey."(2) The method of capturing the animal believed in by mediaeval
writers was a curious one. The following is a literal translation from the
Bestiary of PHILIPPE DE THAUN (12th century):—
(2) (THOMAS BOREMAN): A Description of Three Hundred Animals
(1730), p. 6.
"Monosceros is an animal which has one horn on its head,
Therefore it is so named; it has the form of a goat,
It is caught by means of a virgin, now hear in what manner.
When a man intends to hunt it and to take and ensnare it
He goes to the forest where is its repair;
There he places a virgin, with her breast uncovered,
And by its smell the monosceros perceives it;
Then it comes to the virgin, and kisses her breast,
Falls asleep on her lap, and so comes to its death;
The man arrives immediately, and kills it in its sleep,
Or takes it alive and does as he likes with it.
It signifies much, I will not omit to tell it you.
"Monosceros is Greek, it means one horn in French:
A beast of such a description signifies Jesus Christ;
One God he is and shall be, and was and will continue so;
He placed himself in the virgin, and took flesh for man's sake,
And for virginity to show chastity;
To a virgin he APPEARED and a virgin conceived him,
A virgin she is, and will be, and will remain always.
Now hear briefly the signification.
"This animal in truth signifies God;
Know that the virgin signifies St Mary;
By her breast we understand similarly Holy Church;
And then by the kiss it ought to signify,
That a man when he sleeps is in semblance of death;
God slept as man, who suffered death on the cross,
And his destruction was our redemption,
And his labour our repose,
Thus God deceived the Devil by a proper semblance;
Soul and body were one, so was God and man,
And this is the signification of an animal of that description."(1)
(1) Popular Treatises on Science written during the Middle Ages in
Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, and English, ed. by THOMAS WRIGHT
(Historical Society of Science, 1841), pp. 81-82.
This being the current belief concerning the symbolism of the unicorn in
the Middle Ages, it is not surprising to find this animal utilised in
church architecture; for an example see fig. 35.
The belief in the existence of these fabulous beasts may very probably
have been due to the materialising of what were originally nothing more
than mere arbitrary symbols, as I have already suggested of the
phoenix.(1) Thus the account of the mantichora may, as BOSTOCK has
suggested, very well be a description of certain hieroglyphic figures,
examples of which are still to be found in the ruins of Assyrian and
Persian cities. This explanation seems, on the whole, more likely than the
alternative hypothesis that such beliefs were due to mal-observation;
though that, no doubt, helped in their formation.
(1) "Superstitions concerning Birds."
It may be questioned, however, whether the architects and preachers of the
Middle Ages altogether believed in the strange fables of the Bestiaries.
As Mr COLLINS says in reply to this question: "Probably they were
credulous enough. But, on the whole, we may say that the truth of the
story was just what they did not trouble about, any more than some
clergymen are particular about the absolute truth of the stories they tell
children from the pulpit. The application, the lesson, is the thing!" With
their desire to interpret Nature spiritually, we ought, I think, to
sympathise. But there was one truth they had yet to learn, namely, that in
order to interpret Nature spiritually, it is necessary first to understand
her aright in her literal sense.
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