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Symbolism

Caspar David Friedrich

Now, from a practical point of view, what has been the influence of symbolism on the soul?

And Durtal answered himself: the Middle Ages, which knew that everything on earth is a sign and a figure, that the visible is valuable only for what is invisibly concealed beneath it, the Middle Ages which, as a consequence, wasn’t duped as we are today by appearances, studied this science very closely, and made of it the procuress and the handmaid of mysticism.

Convinced that the only aim that was important for man to follow, that the only goal that was necessary here below, was to enter into direct communication with heaven and to outstrip death by merging himself, by unifying himself as much as possible with God, it carried souls away, subjected them to the sobering diet of the cloister, pruned them of their earthly preoccupations, their carnal ambitions, always pointing them back to the same thoughts of renunciation and repentance, the same ideas of justice and love, and then, in order to hold them, to preserve them from themselves, it enclosed them with a fence, placed God always around them, under every form and under very aspect.

Jesus cropped up everywhere, attested to himself in the flora, in the fauna, in the structure of buildings, in decorations, in colours; whichever way man turned, he saw him.

And he saw also, as if in a mirror reflecting it, his own soul; he could discern, in certain plants, the qualities he had to acquire, the vices against which he had to defend himself.

And he had other examples before his eyes, because the symbolists didn’t limit themselves to turning treatises on botany, mineralogy, natural history, and other sciences into a course of catechism; some, Saint Melito among them, ended by applying their interpretative procedure to every object that came their way; to them, a zither turned into the chest of a devout man; the members of the human body metamorphosed into emblems: so the head signified Christ; the hairs were the saints; the nose, discretion; the nostrils, the spirit of faith; the eyes, contemplation; the mouth, temptation; the saliva, the sweetness of the inner life; the ears, obedience; the arms, the love of Jesus; the hands, good works; the knees, the sacrament of penance; the legs, the apostles; the shoulders, the yoke of Christ; the breasts, evangelical doctrine; the belly, avarice; the bowels, the mysterious precepts of Our Lord; the trunk and the loins, thoughts of lust; the bones, hardness of heart; the marrow, compunction; the cartilage, the feeble followers of Antichrist … and these writers extended this method of exegesis to the commonest objects of daily use, even to the tools and utensils that were within reach of everyone.

It was an uninterrupted succession of pious lessons. Ivo of Chartres tells us that priests instructed the people in symbolism, and Dom Pitra‘s research shows that in the Middle Ages Saint Melito’s treatise was popular and known to all. So the peasant knew that his plough was an image of the cross, that the furrows it made were like the freshly tilled hearts of the saints; he was not unaware that sheaves of corn signalled the fruit of repentance, that flour was the multitude of the faithful, the granary, the kingdom of heaven; and it was the same for many other professions; in short, this method of analogy was a constant invitation to everyone to observe more carefully and to pray better.

Used like this, symbolism served as a brake, bringing the forward march of sin to a grinding halt, and as a set of points, shifting souls and helping them pass through the stops of the mystical life. No doubt this science, translated into so many languages, was only intelligible in broad outline to the masses, and at times, when it was extruded through intricate minds such as that of the worthy Durand of Mende, it appeared overwrought, full of contradictions and accidental meanings. Then it seemed as if the symbolists took pleasure in splitting hairs with embroidery scissors; but in spite of these exaggerations, which it tolerated with a smile, the Church succeeded nevertheless through this tactic of repetition in saving souls, in carrying out the work of the saints on a large scale.

Then came the Renaissance, and symbolism foundered at the same time as church architecture.

J.-K Huysmans, The Cathedral, 1898