Saturday, June 2, 2007


It seems that there is a positive response each time there is post about symbols so on Saturdays for a spell there will be a new series on symbolism. We use symbols for three basic reasons. 1) To recognize each other. In the ancient Church it may have been through tracing the figure of a fish in the dirt to both identify yourself as a Christian and signify that it is safe to speak. We do much the same today. Our buildings have crosses on them. You might wear a crucifix on a chain around your neck or wear a T-shirt with a monstrance on it. All of these signify something about who you are and that others might engage you about such topics.

2) Symbols help us to express difficult concepts. For example, how do you explain eternity? You could use a lot of verbiage or you could draw a circle, a figure without a beginning or an end, which is all present at every moment.

3) We also use symbols to teach. Windows and paintings tell stories from the Bible. Statues remind us of important people in the pilgrimage of faith. They help make the invisible visible. They themselves are not the thing or person we wish to recall, but they point beyond themselves to a reality that does exist. As we are sensory beings they aid us greatly in understanding the things of God.

The symbols that will be expressed in these posts will focus on how they are used by the Church and will largely come from the Renaissance period. The use of the symbols is not limited to what will be described here. This will be a primer of sorts for beginning to interpret or use symbols as they are and have been traditionally used in the Catholic Church.


THE CIRCLE. It represents wholeness or completeness. It is a symbol of perfection and eternity. Because of this it is used to call to mind the spiritual or things of God’s realm or God Himself.

THE SQAURE. This shape is not found in nature. It is a constructed shape and therefore calls to mind things that are manmade or things of the natural world.

You might recall Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of a man within both a circle and a square either of which he seems to fit in well. Within man is the meeting of the spiritual (soul) and earthly (body).

But even more interestingly is the way these two shapes have played a role architecturally. Quite often these shapes have interplayed to give us an understanding of what is going on at the mass. Traditionally the square shape is surmounted by a circle (dome) or has a circle attached to it (such as in an apse) and in the area where these two shapes come together is where the altar would be located.

Here, where the very source and summit of our faith takes place, our architecture shows the worldly and the otherworldly coming together. We come together to worship God. On our altar the physical bread and wine cease to be except in their accidents and have become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ who Himself is perfectly man and perfectly God.

A halo or a nimbus is a circle of light that emanates from a holy personage. Everybody is familiar with the circle of light that surrounds the head of a saint in paintings and holy cards. But what if you wanted to depict a living person and make it known that you think them holy? Artists have used a nimbus in the shape of a square sometimes turned so that it looks like a diamond to show that the person is still living and not dead or canonized yet but still very well and able to make a sizable donation for the restoration of the church.

NEXT TIME – Finishing up shapes!


Adoro said...

OK, now I know why our church's architecture is all wrong. I didn't like it to begin with, but now I know the spiritual answer as to the why.

We studied architecture in school, and had an entire section on cathedrals, but they never taught us (in public school) about the significance of the design, other than that it was draw one up to God. It was very minimalist.

You are providing a major service here. Is this part of your ultimate project? :-)

Anonymous said...