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.
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
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
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