Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Language Of Christian Art, The

by George H. Cobb


George Cobb examines the symbolism in Christian art, using specific examples from the Catacombs and medieval art.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


380 - 384

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, January 1928

Metaphor is the foam of the poet's high waves of thought betraying the emotions that sweep his soul. The artist flies to the language of symbolism for reasons that unfold themselves in the course of this article. One great incentive was frankly utilitarian, to save the ugly sprawling of hieroglyphics over his mosaic or painting. The halo spares him from the alternative of writing on his production: "This is a Saint." Angelo's thoughts for ever outpaced his power of expression, gigantic though the latter was. He had the mind of the mystical poet — his sonnets have a beauty all their own — and as a sculptor felt the powerlessness of the mystic to express his visions without having recourse to similes. The face of the Mater Dolorosa in his immortal Pieta is his youthful effort to show the unfading youth of her incomparable purity. In the Medici Monument at San Lorenzo's, Florence, the Babe in the lap of the Madonna has His face turned from Florence. That is the gesture of the fiery republican whereby he comments on Medici tyranny, which had sadly changed the heart of the lily-white city of the Arno that had proudly owned Christ as Ruler not many years before.

To veil Christian belief from the curious eye of the pagan, whilst revealing thoughts of comfort to the initiated, was the primary motive of symbolism in the Art of the Catacombs. To the pagan, the Good Shepherd as painted there was but a picture of his own god Hermes, who was usually shown with a sheep upon his shoulders. To the Christian convert who had been divinely tracked down and lovingly drawn from the briars of paganism to be gladly carried on the shoulders of the Rescuer into the true fold where reigned a strange, soul-satisfying peace hitherto undreamed of, that fresco of the Good Shepherd meant everything. To the pagan intruder nothing was more familiar than the representation of Orpheus subduing the wild beasts with his inspired music. To the Christian, this was the divine musician Christ, wearing the beardless face of youth to denote the Eternal that knoweth not age, who with His heart-shattering music had drawn them from the bestiality of paganism. Thus early did the Church show her inspired policy of taking all that was purest in paganism for use in her own service. One of the finest examples of symbolism in the Catacombs is the Deliverance of Jonas, which was to represent, not merely the Resurrection, but also the drawing forth of the convert from the demon monster of paganism that had hitherto held him captive. When the catechumen stood at the font, he had to divest himself of everything to betoken putting off the old man. The women must part with all their jewelry. Exception was made of a ring bearing one of the following emblems to be constantly found in the Catacombs: dove, fish, ship, lyre, anchor. The sign of the fish was dear to the early Christian for the well-known reason that the letters of the Greek word for fish give the initials of the name and great attributes of Jesus Christ, so that the fish on the spear represented the Crucifixion. There was a further reason well expressed by Tertullian: "We are little fishes by virtue of the divine fish, Jesus Christ; we swim in the water and we cannot be saved outside that water." To take a fish out of water is not more fatal than to take a soul out of the waters of grace. In the apsidal mosaic at St. John Lateran, you see the fishes swimming about in sacramental streams that flow by the hill.

The halo that can be found rudely drawn in the earliest frescoes has persevered in art. Our Lord usually wears a special halo with a Greek cross designed in the interior. In the old Roman mosaics, a square halo denotes either the Pope living at the time it was executed, or the donor. Early Netherland Art represents the donor as a diminutive figure in the august assembly of the Saints, usually introduced to the Madonna and Child by his Patron Saint. Raphael in his Transfiguration has the two donors taking an interested part as spectators in the glorious scene.

One of the oldest of all the symbols is that of the Four Evangelists, taken from the description given in the Apocalypse. The meaning of these symbols was one of the special instructions given to catechumens. At times the representation takes a curious form. Whilst wandering in the precincts of St. Mark's, Venice, the writer came across a marble sarcophagus, at each corner of which was sculptured one of the Evangelical signs. The artist, plunged in realism, makes a compromise with symbolism by placing the heads of the animals on human bodies, with a result that is truly ludicrous. The man with the lion's head is uncommonly like Bottom the Weaver when he was transformed. The effort to fit an eagle's head on to a human neck is a startling warning to realists to leave something to the imagination of the spectator. Raphael gives a delightful variant to the accepted symbols of the Evangelists in his Disputa, where four lovely baby angels hold aloft open books with the names of the Gospels thereon inscribed.

Artists were faced with the problem of how to denote the Saint that was depicted. The method of the earliest artists was crude, for in the old mosaics the name runs lengthways down the side of the figure. Symbolism was felt to be the only solution — e.g., the keys to denote St. Peter, or the white hair and beard used in the oldest mosaics to betoken the same Apostle — whence sprang the hundred and one symbols of the Saints too familiar to mention. Fra Angelico in the fifteenth century encountered the same difficulty in painting the less familiar Saints, who had no recognized symbols. He writes the name inside the gold plate halo. It is left to Angelo to use these symbols in an original and striking fashion. In his Last Judgment, the Saints eagerly hold up their symbols before the Judge: St. Bartholomew displays the skin flayed from his body, St. Peter shows his keys, as though they were saying: "Lo, we have been faithful to our trust."

The soul departing from the body at death is portrayed under the form of a little babe. One of the trilogy of didactic frescoes — the product of the middle of the fourteenth century — is the remarkable series on "The Four Last Things" at the Campo Santo, Pisa. At the feet of the gruesome figure of Death lie her recent victims in a huddled heap. Angels and demons bear away the souls in the form of babes to eternal bliss or perdition. Angelico has recourse to the same expedient in his Death of Our Lady. It is her Divine Son standing by her bedside who holds in His arms the spotless soul of His Mother in the form of a tiny babe.

All didactic frescoes were forced to have plentiful recourse to symbolism in order to point the moral. To return to the Pisan frescoes, there is to be seen one of the grandest specimen of symbolism in the history of art. The angels are blowing the last trumpets, and the artist would have you realize the awful effect of that summoning blast. In the very center of the picture, an angel holds hands to ears as though to shut out the dread sounds, betraying a very agony of fear. Why, it is Michael the Great Warrior! It is even he who is shuddering for fear and expectation of the fate that will befall precious souls entrusted to his charge! The artist in a sublime moment of inspiration has reached gloomier depths of dread than even the Dies Irae:

Quem patronum rogaturus,

Cum vix Justus sit securus?

Angelo, in his Last Judgment, shows the influence of this picture on his mind in the figure quivering with remorse that is dragged by demons down to hell.

Realist though he be, Giotto has constant recourse to this language of art in the four famous frescoes that hang over the body of the Poverello at Assisi. The unearthly beauty of Lady Poverty is possibly his finest conception. She has briars around her naked feet, for, to the novice, the way of poverty is beset with many difficulties. But around her head bloom roses, for only they who have long loved her can know the charms which she alone possesses.

The influence of Savanarola on art was far-reaching. That wistful, melancholy look on the face of the Madonnas of Botticelli (a convert to the Dominican's preaching) is a piece of symbolism whereby the artist sought to reproduce an idea which the illustrious preacher so often insisted upon — that the prophecy of Simeon was ever before Mary's eyes, even as she pressed her lovely Babe to her bosom. The thundering denunciations of Savanarola which paralyzed men with fear, so that the scribe who undertook to report a sermon has to confess frankly that he was so transfixed with terror whilst the tears rolled down his cheek that he was forced to abandon his work — these denunciations were never forgotten by his admirer, Angelo. He sought to reproduce his master's preaching in that tremendous painting of the Last Judgment, where with a Jonah cry of warning he sought to bring a city of corruption to its better senses just before the flood of the Reformation deluged Europe. In that picture, amidst the welter of confusion, I would point out a perfect example of symbolism. A mother in heaven is eagerly drawing up her daughter from the earth by means of the rosary beads to which the girl is fondly clinging. The great Dominican had not preached in vain on the virtue of the Rosary.

The earliest artists never dared to paint the figure of God the Father; they abstained from reverence and from the inadvisability of such a presentation for converts accustomed to seeing their old gods shown in human form. The Hand was one of the usual symbols of the Father. When at length He appeared in human form, the result usually — and, I might say, naturally — lacked inspiration. In the only fresco he ever painted, under conditions that were positively heart-rending, Angelo covered the roof of the Sistine Chapel with his mighty thoughts. Many, with reason, consider the one panel of the Creation of Man as the world's masterpiece. The artist only wishes to show one attribute of God the Father — His Might. He stretches forth merely His finger, and with consummate ease draws forth the miracle of the world from the void of the dusk. That finger most perfectly symbolizes the Omnipotent; it illustrates well the words of the Psalmist: "For I will behold thy heavens, the work of thy fingers." The figure of Adam is Angelo's Epic on man. The beauty of the human form haunted the soul of the artist, who painted Adam with a skill that is unsurpassed. That mingled look of love and adoration on his face as he slowly dawns to life is a sublime meditation on man's twofold duty to God.

Symbolism is such an ugly word that it frightens many a man from approaching one of the most fascinating subjects in Christian Art. It is the language of the artist, whereby he seeks to deliver some special message to his audience, some thought that is worth carrying away. The artists were flesh and blood like ourselves, intensely human to the point of frailty — reaching the heights of a Fra Angelico, falling to the depths of a Lippo Lippi — but Catholic to the heart's core. Their message is to you and me. To those outside the fold they speak an unknown tongue. It is a bitter thought that this part of our Catholic heritage is handed over to strangers far more interested than ourselves, while too often remaining a terra incognita to the artists' successors in the faith. The lesson of the Divine Maternity is to the stranger but a lovely picture of young motherhood; the "Four Last Things" are for him but a medieval nightmare.

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