Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Church Symbolism

Church Symbolism

Extracted from How to Read a Church (Pocket Guide) by Richard Taylor 2007
(kindly given to me as Christmas present - I wonder why??)

The main body of a church is the Nave - for the congregation. Nave comes from the Latin Navis - meaning ship.

Pews are a fairly modern introduction - before that most people stood - but there were some stone seats around the walls and columns; hence the saying 'the weakest to the wall'.

Beyond the nave is the Chancel - usually up a step and past an arch. Beyond the Chancel is the Sanctuary - also often separated by a step/arch/alter rail. Within the Sanctuary is the alter.

When churches began they all followed a similar pattern.

The East and South were the favourable sides. People faced East for worship - in the direction of the sunrise (probably a pre-Christian habit).

Most churches are built on an East-West axis. Entering towards the West and with the alter in the Eastern end. This is the common practice but not a hard and fast rule.

Images of Christian hope are often found in the eastern window. The western side was considered best for 'doom' paintings such as the Last Judgement.

The church's early policy was to absorb pagan sites, not destroy them - so churches were often build on older structures.

Lynchgate - from lic - Old English for corpse. The priest would come out form church to receive the legal certificate from the family while the coffin rested under the gate outside church.

Graves faced east - the 'honourable' direction - also Christians adopted the old Jewish custom of burial with the feet facing the rising sun - a sign of hope. It is believed that the faithful will rise again when Jesus returns to Jerusalem and they wished to be facing the right way.

The south side of the yard was preferred for burials. The north side often being used for suicides, criminals and unbaptised babies.

Churches therefore tended to be built towards the north of the yard with the entrance facing south with a long path.

Some yards have old crosses - sometimes used for open air preaching. Also before tombstones became commonplace it could act as a single memorial.

Stoup - a bowl of stone by the church door holding holy water for people to cross themselves with. Came from the Jewish tradition of washing hands/face/feet.

Font - usually placed at the rear of the church - the beginning of lifes journey. The journey down the aisle would therefore be your journey through life towards God. Fonts can be lidded. Water would be blessed at Easter and left for later use; therefore some were lead lined. In England font covers were compulsory from 1236. Nowadays the water is blessed on the day of use.
Early columns were often made to represent trees.
Lectern - where the Bible rests. Usually in the shape of an eagle - a bird that was thought to be able to look unflinchingly into the sun - just as the words of the Bible are the unflinching revelations of God.
Pulpits were introduced in about the 14th century when the focus was more on preaching and teachings.
Rood screen - sometimes divided chancel from nave. Rood is the Anglo-Saxon word for cross - and rood screens are often topped by a large cross and sometimes flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John, who were both present at the crusifixion.
Altar - the holy heart of the church - candles can be hung there - and sometimes a candle in a red lamp is kept burning as a perpetual flame to symbolise the continual presence of God.
The cross is the Christian's most important symbol.
There can be an empty cross (just the two cross pieces).
A cross/anchor (with the bottom curved like an anchor shape).
The Crucifix of Triumph - Jesus on the cross with his arms outstretched, usually wearing a long seamless tunic (before the 13th century they preferred not to have Jesus stripped).
The Crucifix of Suffering - this was more popular from the 13th century - Jesus was on the cross -with his head to one side - almost always the 'right' side. Shown having just died, wearing the crown of thorns, with nails in his palms and crossed feet and also a cut just below his ribs.
The Celtic or wheel-head cross incorporated the circle.
The Easter Cross is garlanded with flowers - especially lilies, though now possibly daffodils.
The Passion Cross has ends coming to points - representing the wounds of Jesus.
The Swastika was a fairly common cross in old Christian monuments in Rome - but since its associations of the 20th century is seldom now used.
When first introduced it was as 'see through' light - but by the Middle Ages had become vast golden cartwheels. By the Renaissance had shrunk again to be discreet hoops of light.
Some halos incorporate a crucifix shape (often for Jesus and Lamb of God).
The triangular halo is to represent the Trinity.
Sometimes there is a pointed star shape.
A square or scroll shape is used to denote the person was alive when the image was made.
Other Symbols are:-
Lamb - the lamb of God - Agnus Dei
Fish - symbolises Jesus - 3 for the Trinity. Ancient Christian symbol pre-dating the cross and used as a sign by the early Christians.
Dove - can be for God or The Holy Spirit.
Eagle - divine inspiration.
Rose - purity. Virgin Mary called a 'rose among thorns'. Red for martyrdom, white for purity.
Lily - associated with Virgin Mary.
Ivy - evergreen - immortality.
Palm Leaf - associated with victory since pre-Christian times. Commonly used as a symbol of martyrdom.
Colours - Liturgical colours - the standard ones being green, purple, white and red.
Green - colour of new life.
Purple - used for repentance.
White - Liturgical colour for Christmas and Easter.
In Christian art the following often meant:-
Black - sickness, death, devil, mourning.
Black and white can represent purity.
Blue - used for Virgin Mary and also Jesus. The blue colour was the most expensive and used only on the most precious subjects.
Brown - the dress of Franciscans - imitating poor peasant dress, renouncing the world.
Gold - colour of light, same meaning as white.
Grey - ashes, symbolise death of body - repentance.
Purple - Royalty, imperial power.
Red - fire - can mean hate or love. Mary Magdalene often in red.
White - pure, innocent.
Yellow - light, halos in stained glass. also used in Middle Ages to mark out plague areas - so suggested contagion. Judas sometimes in yellow.
Sacred Monograms - IHC and IHS. Both symbols for Jesus.
IHC is from the Greek spelling for Jesus (IHCOYC). Purists tend to prefer this as it is the earliest version.
IHS is the translation of IHC into Latin form.
INRI - this was nailed to the top of the crusifixion. Latin for 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews'. It was usual to have a placard placed on crosses bearing the man's name and crimes.
XP - the Chi Rho - also stands for Christ - from the Greek for Christ (XPICTOC). The Chi Rho has meanings that pre-date Christianity. Its popularity soared after 312 when it was adopted by the Emperor Constantine - the first Christian Roman Emperor.
Numbers - the octagon (8) sided shape was popular - half way between a square and a circle (to mean half way between earth (square and God (circle)). Often used for pulpits and fonts.
Triangle - Trinity - Father, Son & Holy Ghost. Or could be two triangles together or one inside a circle.
Fleur de Lys - this and other three petalled flowers were also used for the Trinity; as were clover and shamrocks.
The three Magi - from the 14th century they were shown depicting different races. Gold was for kingship, frankincense for priestliness and myrrh for embalming and death.
Who's Who?
John the Baptist - shown with wild dress and ragged hair and beard.
Mary Magdalene - with long blond/red hair. Often shown with a pot of perfume (which she had used on Jesus' feet).
Four Apostles - Matthew (man or angel), Mark (lion, often with wings), Luke (bull or ox with wings) and John (eagle).
St Paul - shown with receding hair and a beard.
St Peter - with keys (of heaven), an inverted cross and a cockerel.
St John - beardless and holding a chalice (with a serpent or dragon).
St Matthew - tax collector - may have money bags.
St James the Great - pilgrim's staff, hat and scallop shell.
St James the Less - shown with saw or club.
St Bartholomew - a set of knives.
St Philip - bread, sword, lance or fish.
St Jude - book or papers.
St Simon - saw.
St Thomas - carpenter's square.
St Stephen - palms and a stone.
St Andrew - a saltire cross.
St Agnes - a lamb.
St Catherine - a wheel.
St Christopher - a lamp with child on shoulder.
St Francis - scars on hands, preaching to birds.
St George - a dragon.
St Nicholas - three gold balls, children, bishop's mitre.
St Sebastian - semi naked - with arrows.
St Teresa - flowers.
St Veronica - a cloth with image of Jesus' face.
St Michael - sword and spear and stepping on dragon. Sometimes holding scales.
St Gabriel - often shown with lily or trumpet.
St Raphael - wearing pilgrim's clothes with a staff, pouch and fish.
The Ten Commandments often depicted on two tablets.

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