Friday, 30 March 2018

Religious Symbols and their Meanings

courtesy wiki
Christ on the Cross by Albrecht Altdorfer
Easter is a good time to show some of the religious symbols I came across hidden within the carved pews in the Chapel at Stanbrook Abbey. The symbols are all connected with what is liturgically known as 'Christ's Passion' as set out by the Roman Catholic Church. 
I have long had an interest in signs and symbols found in art, and endeavour to understand and interpret their meaning. Some works of art carry hidden messages whilst others are more obvious. Two very good examples of paintings with hidden messages are The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein, and The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck.
The pews at Stanbrook Abbey, which were used only by the nuns, are in an area of the chapel called 'The Choir'. They are carved with various exotic mythical beasts at their ends then topped with exuberant flourishes of acanthus leaves.
In Christianity mythical beasts can be representative of both the powers of good and evil, the virtues and vices of human nature, and the temptations into which humans fall. The acanthus leaves in Christianity represent pain, sin and punishment. Whilst I was admiring the acanthus leaves, I noticed that some had symbols hidden within the carving.
The ladder is one of the instruments connected with the Passion, and is often present in scenes showing the descent (deposition) of Christ from the cross after the crucifixion - as per the painting at the start of this post.
 Three nails that held Christ on the cross - three being the Trinity.
The seamless robe of Christ was said to have been worn shortly before the Crucifixion. According to medieval traditions the robe is now kept in Trier Cathedral, Germany. We visited the cathedral in 2012 and I wrote a post featuring the robe here. 
The dice represent the soldiers casting lots
"then the soldiers, took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top throughout, so they said to one another, let us not tear it, but let us cast lots to decide whose it should be" John.19, 23-24 
The first dice showing 'one' has several meanings; oneness of nature in God; one divine person in Christ; one true Church founded by Christ; one mortal life, one baptism, one death, and after death one judgement before eternity.
The second dice showing 'five' recounts the five wounds - two in Christ's hands, two in his feet, and one in his side.
The last dice showing 'four' represents the four evangelists who wrote the Gospels; and the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. 
I believe the object holding the dice represents a torch. A torch is one of the instruments of the Passion. Flaming torches were carried by the arresting Roman soldiers at the time of Christ's betrayal by Judas. The sun in the background is representative of the eclipse that occurred at the time of the Crucifixion.
The crown of thorns.
"when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee and mocked him, saying Hail, King of the Jews!' Mark 15.17
 Lance and Sponge
The lance was used by a Roman soldier to inflict the last of the five wounds into Christ's side.
A reeded sponge soaked in gall (myrrh) and vinegar was offered to Christ to quench his thirst and dull his pain, but he refused.
The whip used for the 39 lashes, the hammer drove the nails into Christ's hands and feet, and the pincers were used to remove the nails following the cruxifiction
The pillar used for the Flagellation of Christ, 
The rope being a symbol of the betrayal of Christ by Judas when he was arrested and bound.
and finally the 30 pieces of silver - the price of Judas' betrayal. They have been counted and are all there.

39 comments:

  1. Fascinating and wonderful carving.

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  2. Great sculptures and unfortunately I did not know that they have religious symbols. Thank you for showing and description, because now I have knowledge of them. Greetings.

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    1. Pleased that you enjoyed learning about these religious symbols Giga

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  3. A huge thank you Rosemary for such an interesting post. I also followed the links to The Ambassadors and The Arnolfini paintings and thoroughly enjoyed reading about the meanings. I like viewing art but have never really “seen” it, until now, now I will view it in a different light! Your students were very lucky to have such an absorbing teacher.

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    1. Dear Polly - I do not teach this, but it is a subject that I find extremely interesting. It helps me to understand and appreciate works of art better. It all started when I first began visiting Italy many years ago to see their Renaissance masterpieces. For example, I could readily understand and appreciate a painting showing a painting of the Virgin and Child, but my curiosity was aroused when I noticed that the Virgin was holding out an apple to the infant - and I simply wondered why?

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  4. A wonderful post Rosemary. I have never seen such beautiful carvings on church pews, and the symbols are in perfect keeping with the biblical accounts.

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    1. Thank you Patricia - I am pleased that I managed to spot these hidden symbols

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  5. Thank you for this very interesting and enlightening post, Rosemary, as well as the other two posts linked from here. In future, when I visit churches, I will be sure to look for symbols and hidden meanings in decorative carvings on furniture etc.
    Regarding the paintings, I will need to read my books on Art and famous paintings with a new perspective. Thank you for opening up another avenue of learning to me.
    Happy Easter days to you and your family!

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    1. Happy Easter Betty - thank you kindly for the interest that you have shown in these posts which I appreciate.

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  6. Such a n interesting post and what a beautiful Abbey.

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    1. Thank you - hope that all is going well with you Janet.

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  7. Happy Easter Rosemary.
    I too want to thank you for this post. The carvings are just beautiful on the pews. What a fascinating place to visit.

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    1. Happy Easter Catherine - we are so pleased to have stayed at this Abbey, and will definitely return.

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  8. Fascinating post, just perfect for Good Friday! What exquisite carving.

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  9. Hello Rosemary, These pews are beautifully and appropriately carved, although there perhaps is an emphasis on the more negative symbols of the religion. What do they use the sanctuary for now--it would seem a shame to alter the space, but it seems hard to reimagine a use for it.
    --Jim
    P.S. I forgot to add Happy Easter to my erased comment!

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    1. Hello and Happy Easter Jim - the chapel was deconsecrated with permission from the Pope, and is now used for civil weddings.
      When the chapel was completed, the carved pews were only seen by the nuns, and I presume that the symbols shown are central to their faith.

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  10. I'm not religious at all but I do find it fascinating and always love old churches, chapels, etc. and the details within. Happy Easter.

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    1. Happy Easter Bob - I think that there is much that we have to be thankful for from those who went before us with all of the fine architecture, art and music that they have left behind for us to appreciate and enjoy.

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  11. Lovely to see.
    Happy Easter Rosemary.

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    1. Easter greetings to you too Margaret.

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  12. Dear Rosemary, The carvings so beautifully photographed. Perfect post for Easter. How wonderful for you to have such a special place to visit and even stay overnight.

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    1. Dear Gina - I think that we will perhaps return again as we enjoyed it so much.

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  13. The woodwork is extraordinary. I know symbols and other things tend to show themselves in church architecture and decor. I recall a Presbyterian church here where symbolic numbers, like five for the first five books of the Bible, repeatedly show themselves in details of the sanctuary.

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    1. It pays to look carefully when visiting churchs, as you have found out, you just never know what you might find.

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  14. Dear Rosemary,

    The wooden carvings are so beautiful and love all the symbols and detail in each one.
    Thanks for sharing this wonderful post for Easter.
    Happy Easter to you and your family
    hugs
    Carolyn

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    1. Thank you Carolyn - hope that you are enjoying a happy family weekend.

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  15. What a beautiful details.
    Happy Easter to you and yours.
    Hugs

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    1. Easter Greetings to you Orvokki and thank you for all of your comments throughout the year.

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  16. Interesting how you can read messages from the carvings, never thought of it, great post ( as always ) Wishing you a Happy Easter.

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    1. I must admit that it is a bit of a passion of mine finding out exactly just what these symbols and signs are expressing.

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  17. I appreciate all of the research that went into this and especially your expert photography.

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    1. In turn I appreciate your kind and genersous comment Janey - thank you.

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  18. Dearest Rosemary,
    Yes, and even after more than 2,000 years those symbols speak to all of us and tell an ongoing story...
    Beautiful woodcarving too!
    Hugs,
    Mariette

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    1. Dear Mariette - I am pleased that I noticed these symbols hidden so cleverly within the woodcarving.

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  19. Dear Rosemary - What wonderful wooden carvings! I’m interested in Christianity as well as Buddhism as a source of moral guidance and life philosophy. When it comes to Christian works of art, I only have to appreciate them as fine art because I don’t understand the symbols and the hidden meanings of Christianity. I have to learn from the interpretations of someone reliable. Thank you for this discourse with fascinating photos.

    Yoko

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    1. Dear Yoko - these early Christian symbols were readily understood by the common medieval man even though he was illiterate. It was a way of control by the church, but many of these symbols are not readily understood today.

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