Copyright © Edward Riojas
It sits there, a bit worn and spineless, but nevertheless imposing. The book has nearly given up its embossed cover to time. The words it contains, however, still bite.
I was recently given an early edition of H.J. Smith’s “Illustrated Symbols and Emblems of the Jewish, Early Christian, Latin and Modern Churches.” The book’s odd binding and a few cryptic stamps attest to it being a very special book. It has wonderful illustrations by the author, some of which are decidedly original and others that would be familiar to most.
What is also familiar is the thrust of the book’s preface. In talking of art schools in the U.S., Smith notes that “...while these schools are thus elevating the art standard of our country, the subject of Symbolism seems to have been overlooked, and the graduates are left to learn or to guess at the meaning of the symbols that are used so lavishly in our churches.”
That was the year 1900, and it seems we are just as dumb. In fact, several books on the subject bear the same sentiment. I suppose that these books’ very existence is due to our relapsing ignorance of even the simplest of Christian symbols – the very same symbols that were easily recognized by our Christian forefathers.
While sacred imagery – and its inherent symbolism – is not necessary in the Church, we are certainly poorer without it. It does, however, take constant teaching to elevate those symbols from mere decoration to confessional and – dare I say – divine art. To the casual viewer, a bird and its young nest there, some geometric shapes are tangled there, and a few seemingly-random letters are sprinkled beyond that. But even to the youngest, knowing saint in the pew, that same bird – a pelican – reflects the loving, sacrificial act of our Savior. That tangle of geometric shapes confess the indivisible nature of the Holy Trinity. Those random letters might be abbreviations for the name of Jesus or “Christ,” or they might declare “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Yes, it takes work to keep ignorance at bay, and I am no exception. While realizing that there are countless, wonderfully-confessional symbols of which I am probably unaware, I also know that the time is coming when yet another book on the subject will be written, again, out of necessity.