Symbols in Art and Architecture

In a time when literacy was limited, it was perhaps inevitable that symbolism in art and architecture would develop in order to convey the depth and meaning of religious ideas and stories. The writers of the Gospels themselves became symbolic characters represented in churches: St Luke as an ox, St Mark a lion, St Matthew a man, St John an eagle. Architecture of churches and cathedrals developed symbolic structure, such as the spire representing a finger pointing heavenward, the footprint of the cathedral based on the shape of the cross and the altar a place of sacrifice as well as a table for eating the Lord’s meal. Even clothing worn by clergy, the materials used in making vestments and chalices, altar cloths and stained-glass windows are enhanced by the symbolic themes accorded them.

In medieval times, when Europe was more explicitly religious, most artists and craftsmen used symbolic representation in their works to express stories from the scriptures, or aspects of God and his creation. In time a whole language of symbols and colours developed to represent the deeper tenets of Christian faith. For instance, Mary the mother of Jesus was always dressed in blue to represent her honour as ‘Queen of Heaven’, and Jesus’ robe was always coloured both red and blue, representing both his human and divine natures. Saints were given a halo, and individually recognised by the symbols attached to them (e.g. St Peter’s keys, reminding us that he was the one to whom Jesus said, “I give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven”).

For all Christians of all denominations, the artefacts and the architecture of their buildings will reflect their beliefs about the faith. Thus, where Quakers might choose simplicity in the surroundings in order to focus on the light of God within them, Anglicans or Catholics would maintain that the beauty and grandeur of a church or a cathedral has the ability to create a sense of wonder and awe. In this way, the architecture and design of a Church will often indicate the beliefs and theological emphases of that particular denomination.

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