Everything in the church speaks to the Christian’s heart not only the ceremonies, but also the stones, the columns, the plan of the sacred edifice. It is really a catechism in stone, where the mysteries of our faith are carved. Many see but hieroglyphics which they do not understand, there where in olden days the little children learned the elements of religion.
Form of a Ship
In the ark which saved the human race from the deluge, in the bark from which Peter made the miraculous draught of fishes, all the fathers have seen a prophetic figure of the destiny of that new society founded by Jesus Christ. And in their writings nothing is more common than to find the Catholic Church represented under the symbol of a ship. “In the name ship,” says Saint Augustine, “we understand the Church; she sails on the dangerous sea of the world, in the midst of tempests, in the midst of storms, and sur- rounded by monsters of all kinds. Christ is our pilot, the cross our rudder; the ship has nothing to fear when she considers, not the waves upon which she makes her way, but the pilot Who guides her.” (Psalm 103)
The first Christians had an especial affection for this symbol, and reproduced it upon the lamps of the catacombs and the Christian burial-places. Nothing, however, better expressed this pious allegory than the churches. In general they had the form of a ship, a form preserved to our own day. The ornamented facade of the edifice represented the prow; the body of the building bore the name of nave, or ship (from Latin navis, a ship); the roof, with its sharply joined centre, gives us the form of a reversed ship.
The Main Door
As it developed, Christian architecture retraced on the doors, the windows, and on the smallest details of ornamentation the history of the spouse of Jesus Christ. The door of the Church is Jesus Christ, as He Himself said. It is to figure His two natures that Christian art has ordinarily divided the main door in two parts, while the single arch that encloses them recalls that the two natures of Our Lord are united in one person. If this symbol is not found in the main door it is reproduced in the window of the facade. The rose window above the door shines like a crown on the brow of Jesus Christ, the King of kings.
Who has defended the Church against error, which, veiled under a thousand forms, has ceaselessly striven to change the precious deposit confided to her? In the mystical body of Jesus Christ, what is the eye that sees and directs her? Let us look up. “In the shining windows, which shelter us from storms and shed upon us a soft light, we see figured the doctors and apostles who oppose themselves to the storms of heresy, and pour upon the Church the light of true teaching.” (Honorius of Autun)
Enemies have never been wanting to the Church, enemies within and without; over all Has she gloriously triumphed. The figures of men or animals crushed beneath the weight of the edifice proclaim the victory of the Church over the enemies within her bosom. Those outside, who constantly gnaw around her sheepfold, are represented by those other hideous and grimacing figures placed on the walls or the buttresses.
The Blessed Trinity
In the construction of our churches we find also the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The number three appears in all parts: the nave, the choir, and the sanctuary, in the length of the building; the three naves, in its width; the columns, the gallery, and the windows, in its height. If we take it in detail, here are three arches, here three, windows; again, three chapels each one lighted by three openings, or even the altar, with its three steps.
Useless to pause longer over a symbolism which the least attentive observer cannot fail to mark. But why the place of honor given to the mysterious number in our temples? It is the seal of the works of God; the entire creation bears its imprint. The universe appears to us with its three distinct parts, heaven, earth, and sea. Time is divided into past, present, and future. Each day comprises invariably three portions, morning, noon, and night. Matter has its three dimensions, length, breadth, and height. Nature has three kingdoms, animal, vegetable, and mineral. The history of man comprises three acts, to be born, to live, and to die. The human soul has its trinity, which is summed up in three words: mind, understanding, love.
Against this dogma of the Trinity, written in shining characters upon creation, and later revealed by God to His Church, hell has spent its rage. The Church has called forth all her energies to defend it, by the pen of Her doctors, ihe voice of her councils, and even by the architecture of her temples. The ternary, or number three, in ecclesiastical architecture is, then, a chant of iove, a hymn of victory; this chant has been sung by man, inert matter, and the whole of creation since its first day. The Church repeats it in her symbolism and in her liturgy; under her inspiration the stones in their turn have spoken to invite the gratitude of man, created in the image of the Blessed Trinity, and in its name regenerated in the waters of Baptism.
The Enclosure of the Sanctuary
The Church is made up of pastors and the faithful. The divine call, a life more holy than the ordinary, separates the guides of the flock from the sheep themselves. A line of demarcation has always, even in the catacombs, recalled to the clergy their withdrawal from the world, and to the people the respect due the ministers of God. Saint Gregory of Nazianzen, speaking of the enclosure which separates the nave from the choir, says that “it stands be tween two worlds, one immovable, and the other subject to changes; the first that of immortals, the second that of mortals.”
Transepts, Apse, and Side Door
Our fathers added another symbolism to that of which we have just spoken, and, while preserving the form of the ship, the churches took the form of a cross. How was this pious thought realized? The nave and the transverse prolongations, called transepts, represent the cross of the Saviour, that is to say, His body and extended arms, while the high altar by its position figures the sacred head of Jesus Christ. For this reason that part of the sanctuary where it stands, called the apse in English, is in French styled the chevet, or head of the church, the mystical head upon which the Crucified has laid His chief crown. For this head has its crown; it is formed of the chapels which in many churches surround the high altar. To complete this symbolism we love to think of the side door as the wound in Our Lord’s side.
In some churches the columns are not placed opposite each other. Is this apparent fault in harmony the result of blind ignorance? This would be a ridiculous supposition. By this apparent disorder the vivid faith of the Middle Ages wished to express that text of Scriptures applied to Our Saviour on the cross “All My bones have been displaced.”
The Incline of the Nave
The Gospel shows us Mary standing beneath the cross, and Jesus Christ inclining His head to breathe His last sigh. These two moving scenes have found their place in Christian architecture. The chapel of Mary was ordinarily placed at the right of the nave, which in many churches was decidedly inclined toward it. When we enter one of these churches, if we direct our steps toward the chapel of the Blessed Virgin, at the sight of the nave leaning toward the side of our mother, let us recall this touching symbolism. It is Mary beneath the cross; she seems to sustain the head of her Son, which leans toward her as if seeking a support when all His friends have abandoned Him; or it is Jesus bending toward His Mother and say ing to us: “She is thine too: Ecce mater tua.”
Christianity alone shows us in its temples that elevation, that aspiration, which, according to a graceful thought, is impatience of the earth, and ardor for heaven. The ancient religions in their sacred edifices knew but the monotonous ceilings, straight lines and horizontal. This architecture was replaced by Christian architecture; the vault, the semi-circle, the spherical and pointed arch, appeared by turns as the richest expression of the destiny of regenerated man; for, to translate them, it was man raising his eyes toward a heaven reconquered by the sufferings of a God. The towers, the arches, the spires of churches force us to detach our eyes from earth and look to a better world. It is the liturgic chant sung in stone: “Sursum corda” (“Lift up your hearts”).
Lift up your hearts and your hopes, above all the belfry spire repeats to you. “Its silent finger,” says a German poet, “shows us heaven.”
It shows it to the poor, to the laborers who painfully gain their daily bread, to the numerous victims of persecution, of calumny, to the ill and afflicted, and to all it seems to say: “Patience, courage, there above is your reward.”
Tradition is unanimous on their symbolism. Saint Hugh of Autun says that “bells, like the silver trumpets of the old law, signify the ministers of the Gospel preaching.” And Honorius of Autun adds: “The sound of bells figures the preaching of them whose voices have echoed through all the earth. The towers where they are hung represent the two laws, and in their height between heaven and earth they announce the kingdom of God.”
The symbolism of the sound of bells has fixed that of the three peals which announce and precede the public offices. The first, softer than the others, represents the old law, revealed only to the Jews; the second, more solemn, marks the loud preaching of the Gospel; the third, the loudest of all, expresses the confusion of the end of the world.
Cock on the Belfry
Saint Clement in the Epistle to the Corinthians, and several doctors with him, have considered the return of the sun to the horizon as an image of the resurrection of our bodies. By a natural connection of ideas the first Christians loved to find in the crowing of the cock the symbol of that powerful voice which shall give to all the generations plunged in the sleep of death the signal of the great awaking. The poet Prudentius expressly says that the voice of the cock, which calls the other birds from their slumbers, “is the figure of our Judge.” The field of rest, placed beside the church, completes the symbol. The cock has been chosen also as the symbol of vigilance. “Placed on the summit of the church,” says the Rational, it represents the pastors, for the cock watches during the profoundest night, his crow marks the divi- sion of the hours, he wakes those that sleep, and an- nounces the approach of day.” Before the use of bells Pope Gregory wrote thus: “The cock is the figure of the preachers, who in the midst of the darkness of this life announce the true dawn of the great day.”