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Posted May 25, 2006

Book: How To Read A Church: A Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals
Author: Richard Taylor
Hidden Spring, Mahwah, NJ. 2003. Pp. 246

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Whether visiting a church as a secular tourist or a devout pilgrim, people have many of the same questions: Who are the figures in the stained glass? What does that picture of an animal mean? Why is the building laid out this way? Is this or that detail significant?

How to Read a Church explains the main features of churches and what they represent. How to interpret images in church art, how to identify people, scenes, details, and their significance. The symbolism of individual animals, plants, colors, numbers and letters. What this all means and why.

How To Read A Church is an essential guide to these incredible buildings and the treasures they contain. As well as exploring recurring motifs, it looks at how to "read" the priest and the congregation, and considers the ways in which churches reflect the Christian year.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Bee or Behive: The bee or behive is a symbol of St. Ambrose, who spoke with honeyed words and on whose mouth a swarm of bees was meant to have settled without harming him. The beehive can also be a symbol of the organized and industrious Church, an analogy used by St. Ambrose himself.

Birds: Birds, as inhabitants of the air and the earth, were an ancient Egyptian symbol of the soul, a symbol that was adopted by the early Christians. Charming legends grew up around some species. During the Crucifixion, the robin was said to have fluttered around Jesus, desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood from his wounds with its own body. In honor of this, it has ever since been marked with a blood-red breast. The sparrow, on the hand, hopped around the foot of the cross, jeering at Jesus. It was cursed to move forever on the earth in sharp, hopping jumps.

Bull: When appearing with an eagle, a man, or a lion (Most usually in a group of four), and especially when winged, the bull is an emblem of St. Luke.

Owl: An owl was the traditional familiar of the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athene (as a Roman goddess, Minerva). This association caused it in turn to become an attribute of St. Jerome, who was thought a fountain of wisdom. The owl is often also a symbol of the night, darkness, and evil. It is sometimes present at the Crucifixion, where it symbolizes the darkness into which Jesus gives light.

Lion: When appearing with a bull, a man, or an eagle (usually in a group of four), and especially when winged, the lion is an emblem of St. Mark. Lions are also associated with Daniel, Samson; Samson is often portrayed wearing the skin of the lion he killed.

Lions can symbolize strength and majesty, ans so Jesus. St. John's vision refers to Jesus as a lion, standing victorious over evil: 'Then one of the elders said to me, "Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed'". Some translations of Psalm 22, which was seen by Christian writers as prophesying Jesus' suffering on the cross, include an image of a lion being pierced through hands and feet, like Jesus: 'Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced like the lion, my hands and my feet' (Psalm 22:15-17). Powerful lions are defensive bulwarks in some Italian churches, where their statues support the porch columns. They catch in their claws small creatures, symbolizing sin, that have tried to slip in past them.

Some Christian writers pushed the analogy between Jesus and lions further, by reference to stories from the medieval bestiaries. Lion cubs were thought to be born dead, and to come to life after three days when their father breathed life into them, just as Jesus died and rose again after three days; lions were meant to sleep with their eyes open, which made them a general symbol of vigilance, just as Jesus is vigilant of the well-being of humankind; finally (and by this stage the analogy was getting rather stretched), lions were thought to hide their tracks from hunters by brushing over them with their tails, just as Jesus was hidden from the world until the Incarnation.

More rarely, and depending on context, lions can symbolize evil, or the Devil. Jesus' defeat of evil was thought to be prophesied by Psalm 91:13, 'you will trample the great lion and the serpent', while St. Peter says in his first epistle, 'Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.' But when joined by other creatures, particularly the lamb, the lion's ferocity is transformed into an image of the peace and tranquillity that is expected when God's kingdom is finally established. The image is from the Prophet Isaiah: 'The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together. . . Isaiah 11:6-7.

Table of Contents:

Reading a church: preliminaries
Church buildings and furniture
Crosses and crucifixes
The Virgin Mary
The Old Testament
Doctors, angels and abstracts
Animals, birds and fish
Letters and words
How to read a priest