Evangelical symbols

Speaking of the winged creatures symbolically associated with the four gospel writers (see yesterday’s post), you don’t often see them used outside of churches specifically dedicated to one or other of them, and frequently not even then.  Venice has made a very visible multi-formed logo for itself out of the winged Lion of St Mark, but the others are less well known.

Matthew’s symbol is a winged man – not an angel – symbolising the human nature of Christ.  Mark, of course, has the winged lion, symbolising Christ as King.  Luke is represented by a winged bull or calf, symbolising the sacrifice of Christ.  And John’s symbol is an eagle, symbolising the omnipotent all-seeing eye of God.

Unusually shown together, here are all four evangelistic symbols as they are represented on oval lozenge panels set up high on the four columns surrounding the altar inside architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece in Barcelona, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia.

Matthew's symbol is a winged man - the humanity of Christ

Matthew’s symbol is a winged man – the humanity of Christ

Mark's symbol is the winged lion - Christ as King

Mark’s symbol is the winged lion – Christ as King

Luke is represented by a winged calf - the sacrifice of Christ

Luke is represented by a winged calf – the sacrifice of Christ

John's symbol is an eagle - the omnipotent eye of God

John’s symbol is an eagle – the omnipotent eye of God

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The Lion of St Mark

St Mark the Evangelist was the Bishop of Alexandria when he died there, and his corpse became one of the most sacred of Christian relics.  In 828AD Alexandria was under Saracen control, and the church fathers there was very concerned about the safety of this priceless relic.  Two Venetian merchants came to their rescue, offering to protect this priceless relic by smuggling it out of the city on their ship for ‘temporary’ safekeeping.  They immediately hot-footed it back to their home city of Venice with their prize, from whence it never returned.

Possessing the whole decomposing body of one of the four gospel writers (even if it was stolen) lifted Venice into the Premier League of ecclesiastical prestige, boosting it up into second place behind Rome, which had the remains of St Peter himself.  St Mark has ever since been the symbol of the city, the protector and patron saint of Venice.

The Gospel according to St Mark describes John the Baptist preaching “like a lion roaring”.  Perhaps because of this, the evangelical symbol for St Mark is a lion, representing Christ as King.  Traditionally, the symbols for all four evangelists are winged creatures, which explains why winged lions can be found all over Venice, not just as monumental sculptures, but even on doorknobs and restaurant menus.

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

Many of the representations of the Lion of St Mark show him with a paw resting on an open book, on which are inscribed the words ‘Pax tibi Marce, evangelista mea”.  “Peace be unto you, O Mark my evangelist”.

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

One of the many versions of the Lion of St Mark in the streets of Venice

The Lion of St Mark on top of this column in the Piazetta, next to the Doge’s Palace, is the most recognisable symbol of Venice, and it has sat there for around 800 years.  Venice was never democratic, the common people never had any say in how they were governed.  Yet, this lion has never been toppled by rebellion or revolution, or even threatened by it, which suggests that Venice’s very convoluted oligarchical system of government actually worked quite well for the benefit of all its citizens, and not just for the aristocracy who ruled the nation state for so long.

The symbol of the city, this winged lion has stood atop this column in the Piazetta for around 800 years

The symbol of the city, this winged lion has stood atop this column in the Piazetta for around 800 years

Champlevé and Cloisonné

In decorative enamel work, coloured vitreous enamel is put onto the surface area to be decorated and then fired until the enamel melts and fuses, both with itself and the object’s surface.   While the enamel is in a molten state, it needs to be confined to a designed area, or it will spread in unpredictable ways.  There are two basic techniques for making sure the enamel stays where it is intended to be, and as the medieval French were particularly good at enamel work, these methods are known by their French names, ‘champlevé’, and ‘cloisonné’.

This beautiful gilded box is a reliquary – a container for relics of a saint, possibly a bone or two, or even a piece of cloth. It was made in Limoges, France, around 1180-90AD, and it used the champlevé process.  In this, indentations are either carefully cut or cast into the surface of the object, and the edges of these indentations define the containers that hold the enamel where it is designed to stay.  When it has cooled and solidified, the whole surface is then polished flat.  ‘Champlevé’ literally means ‘raised field’, but in fact the field surrounding the enamel stays where it is and the enamelled portions of it are lowered, but that is nit-picking, the result is the same.

The lower front of this box shows Christ in Majesty surrounded by saints.  The sloping roof illustrates the Lamb of God flanked by angels.

Reliquaries contained sacred relics of saints - usually some part of their body.  Access to the contents was through a locked door at the end of the box.

Reliquaries contained sacred relics of saints – usually some part of their body. Access to the contents was through a locked door at the end of the box.

This quite small plaque of Christ in Majesty may have adorned an illuminated book cover, or perhaps it was attached to a cross.  It was made in southern France around 1050-1100AD, and its makers used the cloisonné process.  In that method, as you can clearly see here, small strips of metal are soldered to a base surface to create compartments (In French: ‘cloisons’) to contain the molten enamel.  These are then filled with enamel, fired and the resulting surface polished flat.

The Greek letters either side of the Christ figure are the first and last letter in that alphabet, ‘alpha’ and ‘omega’, and they refer to the Book of Revelation.  “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end”.

This gilded enamel plaque is only a few inches tall, but is close to a thousand years old.

This gilded enamel plaque is only a few inches tall, but is close to a thousand years old.

Getting up to Phnom Bakheng

At the top of a knobby hill in Cambodia, giving it panoramic views out over the enormous Angkor Wat and its surrounding countryside, is another ancient temple, Phnom Bakheng.  Like so many other Khmer temples, this one is currently undergoing a substantial archeological restoration.

Phnom Bakheng temple is at the top of a hill, looking down on Angkor Wat

Phnom Bakheng temple is at the top of a hill, looking down on Angkor Wat

There is now a gentle winding path that can take you up the hill to this temple, and on a fine day, it is even possible for tourists to get an elephant ride up that path to the top.  Fitter tourists can ascend the shorter but more demanding way the original worshippers would have had to use, up one of several long flights of steeper steps cut into the side of the hill.

There are steep stone steps in the side of the hill on all four sides of the temple

There are steep stone steps in the side of the hill that lead up to Phnom Bakheng temple

Once at the temple, to get to the holy centre at the very top, you have to climb these even steeper steps, guarded by lions on each side.

The centre of the multi-layered temple at the top of the hill can only be approached up a series of very steep stairs

The centre of the multi-layered temple at the top of the hill can only be approached up a series of very steep stairs

“Why are they SO steep?”,  I asked our guide. “So that you are forced to approach the most holy place with your head bowed, in humility”, he replied.

It is true that it is impossible to walk up these steps without looking down at where your feet are going, but that is more a matter of not losing your balance and not breaking your neck, rather than an act of genuine humility, I would have thought.  But it’s a nice idea.

Each of the steps is much higher than it is deep, the opposite of conventional stair design.  These stairs are not of a type that would meet modern building safety standards.

Each of the steps is much higher than it is deep, the opposite of conventional stair design. These stairs are not of a type that would meet modern building safety standards.

Going back down is even more challenging.  This is a task you can only approach with trepidation, even greater care, and with not much dignity, let alone humility.  Although that might not matter so much when you have already made your offering and are backing away from the holy of holies.

Each of the steps is much higher than it is deep, the opposite of conventional stair design.  These stairs are not of a type that would meet modern building safety standards.

Getting down these very steep stairs is even more challenging than climbing up them.

Pietà

I consider myself very fortunate to have seen this stunning sculpture by Michelangelo before it was attacked by a maniac with a hammer in 1972.  Now, with the damage restored, the Pietà is kept behind bulletproof glass, it can only be seen from some distance away, and it can only be photographed with a telephoto lens.  In the early 60s, it was possible to walk right up to it and around it, to get close enough to touch it if you wanted (although I don’t recall that I actually did that obviously forbidden thing).

This famous statue of a crucified Jesus, lying dead on his mother's lap, was created by Michelangelo in 1488-89, and is now in St Peter's in the Vatican City in Rome

This famous statue of a crucified Jesus, lying dead on his mother’s lap, was created by Michelangelo in 1488-89, and is now in St Peter’s in the Vatican City in Rome

There is no doubt that it is a masterful and powerful piece of work, and deservedly much loved.  But the older I get, the more I can’t help noticing some of its incongruities, which are to me, on reflection, a large part of the reason why the whole piece works as well as it does.

Christ was supposedly in his mid-thirties when he was allegedly crucified, which means that Mary, his mother, who this female figure is supposed to represent, should be a woman of at least 50 years old.  Yet the figure depicted here is a very young woman of striking beauty, probably not more than about 18 years old, which makes her look more likely to be Jesus’ daughter than his own mother.  There are two common theological apologetics countering this fairly obvious observation.  Firstly, that Mary the Virgin was of such incorruptible perfection that she did not ever age as other, sinful, women did.  Secondly, that because Jesus is part of the Holy Trinity, the three-in-one, the source of all life, Mary was in that sense his daughter, and as he was as much responsible for Mary’s immaculate pregnancy as the Holy Spirit, he was also his own father.  Both of these arguments are more than a little creepy.

There are other practical problems with this sculpture.  The body of Christ is very much a corpse, a dead weight, as can be seen from the convincing compression of his armpit against Mary’s hand.  She appears to be holding him calmly and easily, yet the whole weight of his torso is being held up only by this young girl’s extended right arm, a not insignificant feat of strength.  Also, the relative proportions of the two figures are out of whack.  If they were both to stand up, Mary would be easily the taller of the two figures, and her shoulders – even allowing for her voluminous garments – are half as wide again as Christ’s.

In 1972, this marble carving sustained substantial damage when a man called Laszlo Toth walked into the cathedral and attacked it with a hammer.

In 1972, this marble carving sustained substantial damage when a man called Laszlo Toth walked into the cathedral and attacked it with a hammer.

But here then, is Michelangelo’s genius at work.  The mismatches in the apparent ages of the figures, and in their proportions, are no error or accident.  The artist has produced a grouping sublime in its subtlety, and deeply moving.  Had their physical depictions been more consistent, more realistic, this pose, this juxtaposition of figures would not only have been impossible to believe, it would have been demeaning.  With a full-sized Christ, a middle-aged and more diminutive Mary would have seemed pathetic, overwhelmed by the impossible task of trying to hold up the slumping dead body of a larger fully grown man this way.

Instead, Michelangelo shows us that Christ, in the form of an incarnated man, is now only a discarded husk of a body that has been diminished by death.  But Mary, the ageless eternal virgin, still holding and nursing the Christ-child as if he was newly-born, not newly-dead, almost anticipating his resurrection, has become much greater with the strength she demonstrates in her quiet acceptance of his tragic sacrifice.

Even a godless heathen like me finds it hard not to be moved by the beautiful depiction of those mythic ideas.

Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière

High up on a steep hill overlooking Vieux Lyon, the old part of the city of Lyon, France, is this unusual basilica dedicated to Notre-Dame.  The hill of Fourvière was originally an old Roman settlement, and there has been a shrine dedicated to Notre-Dame there since 1170AD.

This church was built between 1872 and 1884, which makes it nowhere near as old as the cathedral below it, at the foot of the same hill, yet there seems to be some confusion over its motivation for being built.  Some accounts suggest that it was intended to thank the Virgin Mary for protecting the city from an outbreak of cholera in 1823; some say it was because she protected Lyon from Prussian troops during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71; others say it was to thank her for defeating the socialist communards during the Fourth Revolution of 1871 – which is more plausible than you might think, seeing that this church was built with private funds donated by the wealthier citizens of Lyon.

High on a hill overlooking the old city centre of Lyon, is the Basilica of Notre-Dame, a mixture of Byzantine and Romanesque styles

High on a hill overlooking the old city centre of Lyon, is the Basilica of Notre-Dame, a mixture of Byzantine and Romanesque styles

It is, nevertheless a strange melange of architectural styles, and the interior is almost absurdly ornate, every flat surface covered in mosaic or fresco, everything three-dimensional elaborately carved or gilded.

The walls and ceiling of the Basilica de Notre Dame de Fourvière are covered in brughtly coloured mosaics and fresco

The walls and ceiling of the Basilica de Notre Dame de Fourvière are covered in brightly coloured mosaics and fresco

One of the many elaborately gilded bosses and borders inside the Lyon Basilica

One of the many elaborately gilded bosses and borders inside the Lyon Basilica

One of many mosaic images surrounded by ornately gilded mouldings and carvings in the Lyon Basilica

One of many mosaic images surrounded by ornately gilded mouldings and carvings in the Lyon Basilica

The detailed craftsmanship of all kinds that is on display here is astonishing.  The overall colour scheme blends into a greenish-turquoise and gold, which feels more like a sumptuous rococo ballroom than a place of worship.

Despite the gaudiness of the individual details, the overall colour scheme of the rich decorations almost gives the impression that the interior of the Lyon Basilica is lined with fine furnishing brocade

Despite the gaudiness of the individual details, the overall colour scheme of the rich decorations almost gives the impression that the interior of the Lyon Basilica is lined with fine furnishing brocade

And the closer you look at the details, the more kitsch (to my more modern taste) it becomes.  The central alterpiece, the Madonna and Child surrounded by stars, is obviously meant to be spiritually inspiring, but to me it just looks tacky and cheap, like something you could buy in a ‘bonboniere’, a gift shop full of devotional artifacts, or even something plastic that you could win at a funfair.

Here is the main altarpiece in Lyon Basilica, the central focus of worship.  It's hard to imagine any statue, which is not itself so bad,  presented in a more kitsch way.  On special occasions I expect the lights even flash on and off.

Here is the main altarpiece in Lyon Basilica, the central focus of worship. It’s hard to imagine that any statue, which is not itself at all bad, could be presented in a more kitsch way. On special occasions I wouldn’t be surprised if the lights even flash on and off.

St James’ Church, Swarkestone

As English country churches go, you don’t find them much more typical than this one, in Derbyshire, on the River Trent.  Like so many others, its 14th century bell-tower is crenellated, as if it was a castle keep, the last defensible redoubt against a hostile world.

And in a sense, to the people of Swarkestone village, it was.  This was the centre of their community life, the location of all the rites of passage that keep families and communities together, the christenings, the weddings, and the funerals.  The parish church was the place that kept the only records of their existence, their histories.  And it was also their sanctuary, their shelter against the forces of darkness.  Here, there was no sanitised pretence that death did not exist.  Here, you walked among and past your ancestors’ graves to attend the ceremonies to begin a new family or to welcome of a new life.

St James' Swarkestone, Derbyshire, with its 'embattled' medieval bell tower

St James’ Swarkestone, Derbyshire, with its ’embattled’ medieval bell tower

Apparently, this church has some splendid alabaster monuments, but I could not get in to see them.  These days, congregations have dwindled so much that this church can no longer afford its own pastor.  It now shares a vicar with seven other local churches, and it is only used for services once a month.  The rest of the time it remains locked.

The locked entrance to St James', Swarkestone, Derbyshire

The locked entrance to St James’, Swarkestone, Derbyshire.  This county has quarries that produce some of the finest and most durable building stones in England.

There must have been someone in this village with a ‘bit o’ brass’ at some time or other, though.  Among the other crumbling and eroding grave markers, there is this rather nice and confident angel, a relic of less secular times.

A hopeful angel grave marker in the grounds around St James' parish church, Swarkestone.

A hopeful angel grave marker in the grounds around St James’ parish church, Swarkestone.

Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company

In 1866, Austen Henry Layard, a British archaeologist, teamed up with William Drake, an antiquarian, and Antonio Salviati, an Italian lawyer, to form a company dedicated to reviving the mosaic glass techniques of ancient Rome.  Layard worked closely with master glass blowers and in 1872 they managed to replicate and manufacture the type of glass known as ‘murrina’.

The company quickly gained a reputation for making high quality original and reproduction glass mosaics, and this lovely round panel is one of those works, made in 1880.

The Last Supper, by the Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company, c.1880

The Last Supper, by the Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company, c.1880

Obviously a representation of the Last Supper, or the First Communion, at the moment when Christ says “this is my body, this is my blood”, the style of this panel is a nice mixture of late Victorian Romanticism and flattened pre-Rennaissance composition.

Head of Christ, from the Last Supper, showing Christ holding the bread and wine

Head of Christ, from the Last Supper, showing Christ holding the bread and wine

Even though Christ’s face is very dead-pan, lacking any emotion, the cutting and fitting together of the mosaic pieces is truly masterly, with huge variation in the colour and size of the tiles – from the large squarish gold tiles in the surrounding halo, to the tiny oblong tiles outlining the shaggy bottom of his beard.

Close-up, showing the range of glass tile colours and sizes and the skilful way they have been arranged to create a meaningful image.

Close-up, showing the range of glass tile colours and sizes and the skilful way they have been arranged to create a meaningful image.

What absolutely wonderful craftsmanship.

Santa Maria della Salute

This unusual dual-domed octagonal church, known locally as ‘La Salute’, dominates the final bend of the Grand Canal in Venice between the Accademia Bridge and St Mark’s Cathedral.

The Rennaissance church of Santa Maria della Salute, seen from the Accademia Bridge on the Grand Canal in Venice

The Rennaissance church of Santa Maria della Salute, seen from the Accademia Bridge on the Grand Canal in Venice

‘Salute’ means ‘health’, but it also means ‘salvation’, and this church was commissioned in 1630, in response to an outbreak of bubonic plague.  It was intended as a plea for deliverance, a solid offering to the Madonna for her to save the city from the dreaded epidemic.

Santa Maria della Salute is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Venice.  Started in 1630-31 it took more than 89 years to complete.

Santa Maria della Salute is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Venice. Started in 1630 it took more than 80 years to complete.

It didn’t work.

The Madonna was obviously not in a benevolent mood, because out of a population of around 150,ooo, 46,490 Venetian citizens died of the disease before the epidemic subsided three years later, a death number which is consistent with the expected mortality rate for untreated bubonic plague.  Untreated by modern medicine, that is, which is somewhat more successful than treatment just by prayer and fancy church building projects.

Set up high with spectacular entrance steps and ornate portico, the Salute is never inundated, even during the highest of 'aqua alta' floods.

Set up high with spectacular entrance steps and ornate portico, the Salute is never inundated, even during the highest of ‘aqua alta’ floods.

Nevertheless, on November 21 every year, the city celebrates the Festa della Madonna della Salute, and a procession of worshippers approaches the church from San Marco across the Grand Canal on a pontoon made of boats, to attend a special service to give thanks to the Madonna for deliverance from the plague.

Never let the facts get in the way of an excuse for a good ceremony.

It’s all in the stars

This quite solid and comparatively simple rose window in the south transept of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Lausanne, Switzerland, was restored in the 19th century, but it is part of the original construction, dating from somewhere around the middle of the 13thC.

The age and good condition of it is somewhat unusual, but this window is a lot more surprising than that.

The relatively simple design of the rose window in the south transept of Lausanne Cathedral can be clearly seen from outside

The relatively simple design of the rose window in the south transept of Lausanne Cathedral can be clearly seen from outside

Inside, it looks like a pretty box full of sugar lollies/candies/sweets (depending on which part of the English-speaking world you grew up in).  But look closer…

From inside, with its three lancet windows below, the rose window of Lausanne cathedral is a bright jewel box

From inside, with its three lancet windows below, the rose window of Lausanne cathedral is a bright jewel box

Yes, typically, in the very centre, there seems to be a God figure in white robes, with arms outstretched, surrounded by images which tell the basic creation story.  But all the other lozenges don’t seem to contain the usual images of saints, or bible story scenes.

The centre panel (towards the bottom of this image) is a conventional representation of the Creator/God figure

The centre very centre lozenge (towards the bottom of this image) is a conventional representation of the Creator/God figure

Here’s the surprise – at least it was to me.  The images in the other roundels are all astrological, not Christian at all.  The signs of the zodiac, the elements, the months, the seasons, the planets – the rest of this whole window is a large astrological catalogue!

At the top, Sol, the sun chariot crossing the sky.  Then (clockwise), the signs of Leo, Cancer, and Virgo. In the centre a figure representing Fire, breast-feeding a salamander.

At the top, Sol, the sun chariot crossing the sky. Then (clockwise), the signs of Leo, Cancer, and Virgo. In the centre a figure representing Fire, breast-feeding a salamander.

At the bottom, Luna, the moon.  The (clockwise), the signs for Aquarius, Capricorn, and Pisces.  In the centre, a figure representing water, breastfeeding a fish.

At the bottom, Luna, the moon. Then (clockwise), the signs for Aquarius, Capricorn, and Pisces. In the centre, a figure representing water, breast-feeding a fish.

At the right, the Pyromancer, who practises divination by fire.  Then (clockwise), the signs for Taurus, Aries, and Gemini.  In the centre a figure representing Air, breast-feeding what looks like a small deer.

At the right, the Pyromancer, who practises divination by fire. Then (clockwise), the signs for Taurus, Aries, and Gemini. In the centre a figure representing Air, breast-feeding what looks like a small deer.

At the left, the Aeromancer, who divines the future from weather conditions.  Then (clockwise), the signs for Scorpio, Libra, and Architenens (Saggitarius).  In the centre a robed figure representing Earth, apparently not breast-feeding.

At the left, the Aeromancer, who divines the future from weather conditions. Then (clockwise), the signs for Scorpio, Libra, and Architenens (Saggitarius). In the centre a robed figure representing Earth, apparently not breast-feeding.

Surely this is a very strange thing to find in a Christian cathedral?  Is astrology not a competing belief system about the workings of the universe that is incompatible with the biblical accounts?  Well, apparently not.  Many devout Christians were also astrologers, and vice versa.

Witchcraft, sorcery, demon possession, all kinds of divination, and many other crackpot beliefs have been treated with very serious credulity within Christianity at various times, so why not astrology?  In the middle ages, apparently there were even popes so superstitious that they refused to meet visiting dignitaries until the papal court astrologer confirmed that the time was auspicious.

I suppose if you are prepared to believe that your whole understanding of everything since the dawn of time can be derived from a book written by ignorant desert nomads more than 2000 years ago, then you are probably capable of believing almost anything.

I bet almost nobody who has ever been to this lovely little cathedral looks long enough at these window panels to notice what they represent, or to appreciate how nice they are.

But I think are very lovely, don’t you?