THE MEANING BEHIND IMAGES AND SYMBOLS
As you walk around the Cathedral Church of St Marie, you will find lots of images taken from nature in the many sculptures, carvings and stained glass windows.
Some is there because it is part of a story – the birth, baptism, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, or the fate of a figure from the Old Testament of the Bible.
Other examples are plain to see, but a little puzzling. Why should a lamb carry a flag and why do exotic creatures like pelicans or lions feature in an English Church?
Yet more examples are hidden or easily overlooked at first; easy to dismiss as afterthoughts added because the artist was worried about leaving a blank space.
The reality is that all these images of flora and fauna have been carefully chosen. The hidden nature in St Marie’s has hidden meanings, many of which would have been as plain as a pikestaff in medieval times, but are forgotten in the hurly burly of modern society.
Before we start on our tour, let’s explore some of those hidden meanings.
AGNUS DEI – LAMB OF GOD
A representation of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb. John the Baptist was the first person to describe Christ as the Lamb of God, when he greeted Jesus with the words: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” predicting that by sacrificing his life on the cross, Jesus would save mankind from sin and death.
The image also evokes the idea of God shepherding his flock.
It is traditionally rendered as a lamb bearing a pennant with a coloured cross on a white background resting on one shoulder and held by the lamb’s cocked foreleg. The cross is usually, but not always, red and pre-
DOVES AND THE HOLY SPIRIT
A white dove symbolises the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Christian Trinity –
The representing appears in all four Gospels and is first mentioned at Christ’s baptism, by John the Baptist, when Luke writes: And the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
PALM FRONDS AND CROWNS
Palm fronds signify the victory of the spirit over the flesh and are symbols of martyrs –
Crowns are another symbol of martyrdom, representing the immortality of the martyrs’ reputation on earth and their eternal life in heaven.
The pelican was once thought to feed its young with its own blood by pecking its chest –
In the pelican’s case, the reality is more unromantic. They regurgitate semi-
While the pelican may appear to be wounding itself, it is, in fact, pressing its bill onto its chest to empty its pouch.
The erroneous belief may have been fuelled by the fact that pouches become redder during the breeding season.
Pomegranates signify a number of Christian concepts.
The seeds bursting out of a pomegranate are likened to Christ bursting out of the tomb after his crucifixion, so the fruit represents resurrection and the promise of eternal life. The Pomegranate’s many seeds can also represent the Church, unity in faith and a community of believers. Pomegranates appear in depictions of the Virgin Mary as ‘Mother of the Church’ and can also symbolise royalty.
Some of the symbolism harks back to the myth of Proserpina (Persephone), the Roman goddess of fertility, wine and agriculture, who was abducted by the god of the underworld and then had to live with him for six months of every year after eating six pomegranate seeds in the underworld.
LIONS, BULLS AND EAGLES
Lions are often used to symbolise kingly power. They also represent Jesus’ resurrection because people used to believe lions slept with their eyes open –
Bulls symbolises sacrifice, service and strength, while the eagle was thought of as a creature of the sky that could look directly at the sun, representing Jesus’ Ascension to Heaven and His divine nature.
The Lion, Bull and Eagle are used respectively as the symbols of Saints Mark, Luke and John, the authors of three of the Gospels. The author of the fourth Gospel, Matthew, is represented by a winged man, indicating Christ’s human and divine nature.
Red roses symbolise Christ’s five wounds –
VINES, GRAPES, OAKS & ACORNS
The vine itself represents the growth of the church. The Gospel of John quotes Jesus as saying “I am the vine” before going on to explain how God tends Christ’s church to encourage growth.
Grapes symbolise abundance, prosperity and fertility, but above all Christ’s Blood, received during Mass in the form of wine.
Wheat symbolises fertility, renewal, rebirth and abundance and is, of course, the key ingredient for the bread used in the Eucharist, where it becomes Christ’s body.wine.
WHITE ROSES AND LILIES
White roses and lilies signify purity and rebirth. They may also be used to signify virginity.
The lily also appears as the stylised Fleur de Lis, made up of three lily petals.