Geometry or Symbolism?

It was a mealtime conversation in Rome while I was staying at the Venerable English College, the Venerabile. I was sat opposite a young priest from Malta who had come to Rome for further theological studies and was particularly interested in art history. He had just written an essay on art and the liturgy, and – well – the conversation flowed from there.

Somehow we got on to the subject of baptistries – it wasn’t me, honest! He commented on how most of the early ones were octagonal. Now we are talking about the fourth century onwards when baptism was still usually administered to adults professing their faith. Often the baptismal tank would be housed in a separate building in the grounds of the church and this building, as well as the tank, is referred to as a ‘baptistry’.

Octagonal Baptistry, Ravenna

Anyway, back to shape. Often these buildings were square or octagonal with a circular dome above. It was a throw-away line from the young priest, muttered with something of the certainty of the young (or maybe the confidence of being a student of the Gregorian University in Rome): ‘Of course, these baptistries were eight-sided to symbolize the ‘eighth day’.’

Now another historical note: the ‘eighth day’ was a concept developed by early Christian writers and it means Sunday. The term focused the meaning of the move for worship on the seventh day to worship on the eighth day. Now I know that a fair number of us have sometimes wished there were eight days in a week, but I know and the early church knew that there are in fact only seven. It’s a kind of paradox or nonsense phrase.

Sunday is the Lord’s Day – the first day of the week – the day of resurrection. But the point is this – it is not just another day like the rest. Nor is it even just the first day of creation – it is the day of new creation when everything in heaven and on earth is changed because God has raised Christ from the dead. God’s future end, his eschaton, has broken into human and cosmic history and all the boundaries have been changed and expectations have been turned upside down.

The young priest didn’t need to make the connection for me. The symbolism was so rich. ‘When anyone is united to Christ there is a new world’ – ‘We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’ In baptism we celebrate the life-giving, life-changing work of God who raised Jesus to life on the eighth day – the first day of a new world. And those just baptized clamber out of the water to walk in a new world, a world of the eighth day, living in the light of the resurrection.

All this is rich symbolism, great theology and inspiring sentiments. But… I wondered whether baptisteries were octagonal in order to express the eighth day – or because it was a nice shape which the architect thought would look good – or because an octagon is what you get when you put a dome on top of a square and do something artistic with the interior walls! Was it simply geometry or intentional symbolism? Or did  the symbolism suggest itself once baptisteries had eight sides and someone made an imaginative leap?

This conversation was a month ago but it was brought to mind by another geometry-symbolism bit of mulling this week. Between Venice and Assisi I took a two-day detour via Ravenna, courtesy of the slow train from Bologna to Rimini. Ravenna was, for a time, the capital of the western part of the Roman empire,  when it was being overrun by Goths and others. For a period it was rescued by the eastern part of the empire, based in Constantinople and in the fifth and sixth centuries a number of churches and, yes, baptisteries were built. The town boasts eight, UNESCO World Heritage sites – and on Tuesday I visited six, all within a mile of one another – and each with the most incredible mosaics.

Christ in Glory, St Vitale, Ravenna

St Vitale is one of the largest buildings and  – yes – it’s octagonal. Here is a photo I took of the image of Christ in glory which faces the congregation from above the altar. It is incredible that it was made in 548 – nearly fifteen hundred years ago. The mosaics in Ravenna are stunning and are claimed to be ‘the best Byzantine mosaics outside Constantinople’ (Istanbul).

The Cosmic Cross, Ravenna

Back to my theme. In two of the church buildings I found domes decorated as starry heavens – blue background with gold stars and a central gold cross. I sat in one chapel and gazed at this beautiful image. As I looked I realized that all the stars were eight-pointed! Now I think I was brought up in the belief that stars had five points – if you know what I mean. Then I thought, well, that’s just four lines imposed on one another – how I would normally draw an asterisk – geometry again.

And then the geometry or the symbolism didn’t matter. For I was seeing not simply the stars but the cross. Here was the cosmic cross – the redemption  of all things through Christ.  Here was a claim about what kind of universe we inhabit – fallen, broken, but redeemed. Whether through geometry or intentional symbolism, here was an eighth-day realization that everything was different because of the cross and resurrection of Christ – all creation was to be seen in the light of the cross.

It is fitting that the heavens should rejoice:

and that the earth should be glad,

and that the whole world, both visible and invisible,

should keep the feast.

For Christ is risen, the everlasting joy.

Now all things are filled with light,

heaven, and earth, and all places under the earth.

All creation celebrates the resurrection of Christ.

Orthodox Easter sentences

Reprinted in Gathering for Worship p384

            © Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius

Mary Overload?

Hands up those who can remember Michel Quoist’s Prayers of Life! As a teenager they had a profound impact on my sense of where God is to be found in the gritty realities of everyday life. From an ecumenical perspective, the prayer ‘Help me to say Yes’ broadened by Protestant understanding of Mary, with its line, ‘God needs my Yes as he needed Mary’s Yes’.

Protestants have often, or even usually, ignored the biblical figure of Mary in reaction to what they see as the excessive claims of medieval and Catholic piety and dogma. They have even muttered such things as ‘Mariolatry’ (often while practising their own ‘bibliolatry’ – but that’s a debate for another day). In contrast, and prompted by Quoist, I have, each year during Advent, preached about Mary as a model of faith, an example to us on how to respond to God’s call – ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.’ I have even meditated upon the charismatic implications of the work of the Holy Spirit conceiving Christ within her.

Yet this week I found myself reaching a kind of Mary overload. Two things came together. First, while on my Italian journey I have been reading each day a few pages of Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation. It is, I believe, a spiritual classic but even classics are of their time and this isearly Merton and, at times very pre-Vatican II (because, of course, it was). Published in 1949, it is the fruit of the early years of his contemplative monastic journey when he seems to have been ecumenically unaware.Despite this, the book is full of gems – or perhaps I should say ‘seeds’ that encourage the reader to contemplate. But of course it is human, and so mixed.One moment he writes,

… if you want to have in your heart the affections and dispositions that were those of Christ on earth consult not your own imagination but faith. Enter into the darkness of interior renunciation, strip your soul of images and let Christ form himself in you by His cross. (p96)

Then within a few pages he is talking of Mary’s soul as ‘absolutely full of the most perfect created sanctity’ (p101), and ‘We believe that hers was the most perfect sanctity outside the sanctity of God…’ (p100)  I could quote further, but I expect you get the gist. I started muttering about the Vulgate’s mistranslation ‘full of grace’, about scriptural warrants for such ideas – and then tried to be eirenic and generous.

Coronation of the Virgin by Michele Giambono

The second thing was just the next day. I entered the first room of the Academia art gallery in Venice, with its medieval and early renaissance religious art, and found that nearly all the pieces were of Mary. Now, I’m very happy to spend time in front of pictures of the annunciation (Mary’s Yes) or images of the Virgin and Child (symbolic of incarnation) but when I realized that a third of the works in the room are representations of the coronation of the Virgin Mary in heaven – well – I had to take the weight off my feet and take stock. The first reaction was emotional and negative – then the reflection began and I tried to enter the world view of these artists and the spirituality that they express and provoke.

Leave aside for the moment the theological qualifications and caveats – I worked my way through them apace. Yes, coronation speaks of hierarchy. Yes, Mary seems to be given a mediatorial role which should only belong to Christ. Yes, there are dogmatic formulations about perpetual virginity and ‘the assumption of BVM’ which Protestants find very problematic…. yes, yes.

Then the closing lines of Charles Wesley’s Love Divine came to mind:

Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Here is a vision of the consummation of all things in which we all have crowns! Is it too big a step to see in the medieval vision of Mary’s coronation a prefiguring of our own destinies where ‘Love [bids] us welcome’ and gives each of us the place of honour. If this interpretation has any merit then the coronation becomes a symbolic representation of Mary’s place as the first Christian – chronologically – and, perhaps, prophetically.

Her Yes makes room for the Holy Spirit to indwell and enable Christ to be born. She is, as eastern Christians say, the Theotokos, the bearer of God. She also stands at the cross while most of the disciples ran away… And, perhaps, in these pictorial representations of her welcome in heaven we see the welcome that awaits all who trust in the child she bore for us and our salvation.

So – back to Merton. No coronation here, he is talking of Mary’s poverty and lowliness as expressed in the Magnificat.

It is because she is, of all the saints, the most perfectly poor and the most perfectly hidden, the one who has absolutely nothing whatever that she attempts to possess as her own, that she can most fully communicate to the rest of us the grace of the infinitely selfless God.

Well, I – we – might still hesitate with some of that, but its central theme is rich. As Paul puts it, ‘God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’; or as Kendrick puts it, ‘Our weaknesses become his possibilities’; or, as Merton continues:

This absolute emptiness, this poverty, this obscurity holds within it the secret of all joy because it is full of God.

Facing God in Church

After a week’s holiday the blogging continues – as does my Italian Journey page.

The guide book tells me that there are over a hundred churches in Venice – we are talking buildings, of course, for some of them are ‘redundant’ and some are now concert venues for the ‘Venice Experience’ of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in period costume. Two church visits have set me thinking.

Approaching San Marco

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday and I walked to San Marco to worship at solemn (sung) mass in the basilica. I had visited last week as a tourist (in the rain) but now I wanted to return as a worshipper, albeit one who would have to participate in a language where I can manage (badly) a couple of dozen words and then dive for the phrase book.

At first, the body language of the building was an ambivalent presence. I arrived early and had time to look around from my seat before the service began. I thought of the wealth of Venice as a trading city, of plunder from Byzantium and untold inequalities that enabled some to donate so much wealth for civic splendour and personal glory … and perhaps for the glory of God (very similar thoughts that come to me whenever I enter Westminster Abbey).

The shape of the liturgy was familiar so I was able to follow the service of the word and then the familiar movements of the Eucharist. I had a fair idea what the readings were likely to be and so reflected on Acts 2 and John 20. The sung bits were in Latin so I knew them from concerts I have sung over the years and was able to join in – though not vocally  – the choir was beautiful, singing renaissance settings from a gallery high up above the sanctuary (in one of the galleries for which Monteverdi wrote his Vespers of 1610).  The archbishop was kindly and there was a confirmation of some young adults to boot. The sharing of the peace was warm and a good time was had by all.

But what struck me were the mosaics – especially in the domes and the half dome of the apse above the high altar. From my place I could see throughout the service three images of Christ. First there was the crucifix above the screen between chancel and the nave – above and behind the presiding archbishop. Then there was the image of the ascended Christ above the congregation in the Ascension Dome over the crossing. But most striking was the Christ Pantocrator – Christ, Ruler and Sustainer of all – which faces the congregation from the apse above the high altar. It was the continual presiding of the risen Christ – over the cross of crucifixion, over the reading and preaching of the word, over the praise, over the offering and breaking and sharing of bread – Christ over all, in all through all, for all. I didn’t understand many words – but I knew the gist of the service, and I know and am known by the one who holds all things in being and whose name is Love.

What a contrast was the second church. This morning, I was on my way to the supermarket – a circuitous way as all journeys seem to be in Venice. On foot, over stepped bridges, down alleys and around corners. And with the canal equivalent of a back lane on my left, I noticed a small church on my right. Exploring inside revealed a building down at heel architecturally but vibrant with signs of current use and much popular devotion. A head just showed above an open copy of L’Oservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. On my tentative ‘Scusi’ a kindly face appeared above a Franciscan habit and he readily agreed that I could photograph a painting above the main altar that had attracted my attention. Originally a Carmelite convent church, it is now called Ognissanti  – All Saints – and they are very much in evidence in the sixteenth century altar painting which portrays a crowd of saints adoring the Triune God. Perhaps not a great painting, and certainly a very dimly lit architectural setting, but the portrayal of the Trinity is theologically and spiritually powerful.

God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God...

Here is no suggestion of hierarchy, so common in much western art. Rather, here the Son, holding the cross as a sign of his incarnation and sacrificial death, is on an equal level with the Father and the Spirit hovers between them, the bond of love. Dingy and dark, surrounded by peeling walls – but the body language of this little church speaks of lived faith and faithful prayer and, at its heart, the love of the Triune God. So I took my photograph, then sat reflectively, then  knelt prayerfully. Finally, with a ‘Grazie’ to the friar, I went to the supermarket.