From Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1897; pp. 21-33.




Ecclesiastical Symbolism in Architecture.


WHEREIN lies the beauty of poetry? We believe it is in the appeal of the beautiful in outward form, and intellectual meaning to the aesthetic sentiment of the soul.

“As imagination bodies forth
  The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
  Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
  A local habitation and a name.”*

But this art is not confined to the poet’s pen. Poetry existed long before the age of letters, and was expressed in other ways than by carefully metred line and rhythmic stanza. There is a bold wealth of soul-speaking poetry in the most primitive of hieroglyphic word-painting and unwritten popular mythology, no less than in the sweet lyrics of Herrick or Burns, or the melodious idylls of Tennyson.

To tell to others “those thoughts which do often lie too deep for tears,” by whatever means, whether by pen, by chisel, or by brush, is poetry. 22 Over and over again has architecture been called the poetry of the Middle Ages. In an age when printing was as yet unknown, the ideas of genius had to be embodied in lasting form legible to other minds, and of these forms one was architecture. The cathedrals, the minsters, and the abbeys of the Middle Ages were not only the places of worship for the people and the abodes of the monks and religious bodies, they were also the mode of expressing the deep thoughts and ideas of master minds. Religious thoughts, instead of being thrown into hymns, and sermons, and sacred poems so widely as in later times (though this did take place, to some extent, in written manuscript) found scope for expression in the sublime edification and magnificent ornamentation of Gothic architecture.

Goethe, the great German poet, has called Gothic architecture “a petrified religion.” It is so. Religious thought is embodied in stonework. In our modern churches we re-copy the thoughts expressed in the past by those master builders.

Just to take a few instances of symbolism in architecture. We will begin with the foundation. Have you ever noticed how the ground-plan of so many of our old churches forms the figure of a 23 cross? The nave forms the lower part of the cross, the chancel forms the upper part, and the transepts form the cross arms. Here is the groundwork of a poem in itself.

But often we find in the building of the church that the chancel and south aisle have not been made straight, but with a curve towards the north. Such is the case with Peterborough Cathedral, and in the North Country with the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, Newcastle, and with the tiny old church of Whitburn. In such a case the chancel is called a “Weeping Chancel,” and does not occur in any but very old churches. It is the presentation of a beautiful little poem. For the chancel slopes towards the north, because, so tradition says, the head of the dying Redeemer fell slowly over on his shoulder towards the north, as the light went from his eyes, and the last sound failed from his lips of the trustful cry, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”

But the cruciform is not the only shape of the ground-plan.

There are some few churches in England usually called Round Churches, like St. Sepulchre’s at Cambridge, and the Temple Church, in its quiet corner just outside the din and bustle 24 of Fleet Street, which are round in shape, not like the Coliseum or the modern opera house for acoustical properties, but for the embodiment of a lengthy poem — a poem filled with the ambitious aspirations of the Crusades, an ambition culminating in the attainment of the Holy Sepulchre, — blighted hopes, and longings, the only relics of which are seen in these few foundations of the Knights Templar, wherein they copy the figure of a sepulchre — the Holy Sepulchre, to which they aspired, but to us who read, the sepulchre of their dead hopes. The church of Little Maplestead, Essex, is an interesting example of a round church. It is said to have been built towards the close of the twelfth century.


An Engraving of Little Maplestead Church, in Essex, England.  It has a rounded front portion and a hexagonal tower.


From photo by Brown & Sons.]                                                                        [Halstead.

Many of our churches are basilica-shaped, i.e., oblong-shaped, often with a semi-circular apse at the end. They are built after the pattern of the ancient Roman Civil Courts of Justice, and to us the very shape is a poem telling that here, whatever injustice may reign outside, here is the abode of justice, for this is the house of the Judge of all the earth.

Proceeding from the foundation, we look at the building itself, The porch, the nave, and the 27 chancel have been compared to the division of the world into Pagans, Jews, and Christians in an ascending scale. The nave itself embodies in its name and shape a pleasing poetic thought, it is a ship. Look up at the vaulted roof and you see the inverted hull. It symbolizes the ark of Christ’s Church, wherein the refugee finds shelter from the flood of sin and ignorance without. The arches resting on the massive pillars, some clustered, others solid in their own perfection, support the roof and raise it skyward. Even so the span of mortal life resting upon the pillars of virtue raise the soul heavenward. The pillars, that tower so far up in the interior, seem in the Perpendicular Style to pass on upward in the pinnacles of the exterior, as we gaze from the base, almost to an infinity, filling the soul with indescribable feelings, not of mere aestheticism, but of highest spiritual yearnings and aspirations — the true end of poetry is gained.

There, again, is a great east window, consisting of three windows, but the three together only form the one great window of the east. It is a poem in stonework, telling the glorious mystery of the Trinity, the great Three in One.

Magnificent are the poems written in the mere 28 numbers of architecture. Here is one window standing by itself. It denotes the Oneness of the Deity, in whose church we are.

There are two side lights forming but one window; we are reminded that Christ had two natures, the Godhead and the Manhood, yet forms but one person. Here, again, are three equal windows; they tell of the three persons of the Trinity. The pulpit has four steps, because it rests upon the four Gospels, and everything preached from that pulpit should breathe the spirit of those Gospels.

We might print pages upon the mystic magic meaning of numbers in these poems of stone. How that four again represents the commandments of the first stone inscribed by the finger of God on Horeb, and also all things created, comprehended within the four corners of the earth. How that five represents Christ and the four evangelists who tell of Him. How that six symbolises the worship of God by the Cherubim, who in Isaiah’s vision are clothed with six wings, and, moreover represents our duty to our neighbor, the six commandments on the second stone of Sinai. How that seven is the perfect number, representing the completion of all things human 29 and Divine; being made up of three the representation of the Deity, and four the representation of the universe, since, in old philosophy, all things are composed of the four elements. How that it often denotes the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit. Eight is the symbol of “many called but few chosen,” for after the warning of 120 years only eight persons were saved in the ark. Nine is the square of the divine number three, and in architecture has always had a prominent position, as in the Chapel of the Nine Altarss at the east end of Durham Cathedral

“Three times three is a mystery,
  Which none but a mason can solve.”

Ten symbolises the commandments which must be kept by every worshipper there. Eleven represents the Apostles, minus Judas. Twelve represents the Apostles. Thirteen (in popular parlance the luckless number for this very reason), represents Christ and the Apostles.

But when we look at the figures carved on capital and over arch, the storehouse of poetry is filled to overflowing. Here is a bunch of grapes — the emblem of the vine of Heaven. Many a lily is found symbolising the purity of Him who says, “I am the Lily.” “Ego flos vallium sum.”


The great rose window, of which magnificent specimens can be seen at the east of Durham Cathedral, and the west of Peterborough is the companion to it, speaking of the Rose of Sharon. It is a full-blown rose, because by the Holy Spirit the Saviour of Mankind is fully revealed under the Christian dispensation.

Here is a sculptured sunflower, telling in mystic form of how the soul turns to God for light and warmth.

In Roslyn Chapel the chrysanthemum appears; for many years a puzzle to antiquaries till the knowledge of the architect’s relation to Spain, and the mediæval Spanish overland correspondence with China and Japan, proves it the flower of the East — the symbol of the Rising Sun of Righteousness.

To every race in every time flowers have been the symbol of poetic thought.

When we come to carving of stalls and misericordes the scope of poetic skill is still further extended, though too often it is perhaps degraded, as in the sow-playing, pig-dancing scene of the misericorde of St. Mary’s, Richmond, once in Easby Abbey. Lower still there is a spice of comic poetry in the pun upon the name 31 of the old Abbot Bamton of Easby, made into the figure of a tun of wine, with a pastoral staff stuck through it, and the rather suggestive syllable Bā above it, somewhat after the spirit of Hood’s comic pieces.

The carved or sculptured reredos gives opportunity for sublime and striking expression of religious poetic thought. In the charming little carved but simple reredos at All Saints, West Harton, we see copied much of the symbolic teaching of earlier times. The reredos is composed of seven panels in a lovely blending of colours — terra-cotta, and green, and gold. There are seven, for that is the perfect number. The centre panel is left unfilled, and forms the background for the great cross upon the gradine, which stands out golden in the afternoon’s sun, streaming in by the western window until the last gleam of sunset dies out from the sky. In the alternate panels on either side are the figures of angels, four in all, bearing in their hands each a golden shield, on which are marked the signs of the Saviour’s passion. These angels’ wings are edged with gold, which gleam out under the same afternoon sun, conspicuous to the extreme end of the nave, two guardian angels 32 form on either side the central cross. There are four angels, as it were the spirits of the four evangelists, who, in their Gospels, tell the story of the central cross and of the passion, the signs of which those angels bear upon their shields, and again it brings the thought that that passion was endured for all men gathered from the four winds of heaven, the tidings of which is borne to them “by the four angels standing upon the four corners of the earth.” The first angel hath a shield of gold, and on the shield a gilded crown of thorns. The second angel hath a shield of gold, and on the shield a hammer for the driving in of nails through hands and tender insteps, and a pair of pincers, also gilded, for the drawing of those nails when the Crucified One is dead. The third angel hath a shield of gold, and on the shield three dice, and in between three nails — the dice for casting of the lots on His vesture, and the nails for rending the flesh of the Crucified One, whose robes they would not rend. The fourth angel likewise hath a shield of gold, and thereon is a flagellum or whip for scourging, and crosswise with it a spear, like unto the spear wherewith one of the soldiers pierced His side, and forthwith from the broken heart 33 of the dead Crucified One came there out blood and water.

The crown of thorns, the hammer and the pincers, the dice and nails, the whip of many cords, and the spear are gilded, for shame and suffering are at last transfigured into glory.

Architecture has this advantage over written poetry, that it can give to the soul in a single flash a perfect epic. To gaze up into the vast dome of St. Peter’s at Rome, or at St. Paul’s in London, fills the soul in one short moment with that feeling of sublimity which is gained by hours of patient reading of “Paradise Lost.” To gaze up through the dim religious light into the fretted vaulting of a Gothic minster, fills the intellect with a mysterious hint of knowledge not yet acquired, the heart with an inexplicable emotion, the soul with an intense yearning, and we close our eyes with reverence and devotion! There has been something more than merely met the eye.

“It is the mind that sees :  the outward eyes
  Present the object, but the mind descries.”



 *  Shakespeare.