Can Man Read the Symbolic Book of Nature Today?

by David Clayton on April 1, 2011

Or Should We Just Rely on Our Gothic Forebears? I recently wrote about the quincunx and its relationship to the traditional image of Christ in Majesty showing with symbolic representation of the four evangelists, here. Frenchman Emile Male described how the understanding of how these four figures related to the evangelists in the 13th century (his book is called, The Gothic Image). Male is drawing on a commentary on Ezekiel by Rabanus Maurus, the 9thcentury Benedictine monk and bishop of Mainz in Germany, which, he says became the authoritative text for the later gothic period. Reading this is helpful in understanding the roots of this symbolism, but rather like an earlier discussion of the pelican and the peacock, not without a few difficulties also.

Male recounts it as follows:

‘The emblem of St Matthew is the man, because his gospel begins with the genealogical table of the ancestors of Jesus according to the flesh. The lion designates St Mark, for in the opening verses of his gospel he speaks of the voice crying in the wilderness. The ox – the sacrificial animal – symbolizes St Luke whose gospel opens with the sacrifice offered by Zacharias. The eagle, who alone among birds was reputed to look straight into the sun, is a symbol of St John who from the very first transports men to the very heart of divinity.

‘Again these same creatures are symbols of Christ for in them may be seen four great mysteries of the life of the Saviour. The man recalls the Incarnation. The ox, victim of the old Law calls to remembrance the Passion. The lion which in fabled science sleeps with its eyes open is the symbol of the Resurrection for, [quoting Maurus] “in virtue of his humanity He appears to sink into the sleep of death, by virtue of His divinity He was living and watching”. The eagle is the figure of the Ascension because for Christ rose as the eagle soars to the clouds.

‘There is a third meaning relating to human virtue: each Christian on his way to perfection must be at once man, ox, lion and eagle. He must be man because man is a reasonable animal; he must be ox because ox is the sacrificial victim; he must be lion because the lion is the most courageous of animals and the good man having renounced worldly things has nothing to fear for it is written of him “the righteous are as bold as the lion”. And he must be eagle because the eagle flies into the heights looking straight into the sun, type of the Christian who with direct gaze contemplates the things of eternity.’



There is some confusion here on my part, in that I had always thought that the first symbol was an angel, and not a man. Reading Ezekiel again, he describes the appearance of the first figure as ‘human with wings’ rather than as an angel. The ox and the lion are described as having wings as well, and these are still described in the tradition as ox and lion, so I have taken it that the first figure is human, or at least as human as any ox with wings is bovine. Scripture scholars please help!

Male then remarks upon the fact that two thirds of the triple-layered symbolism fell away as early as the Renaissance, as man became less inclined to interpret nature symbolically. Is this something to be regretted, I wonder?

My personal opinion is that the symbolic reading of the book of nature is important. I feel it highlights for us that God’s dealings with his creatures have two aspects, one external and one internal: the natural and the supernatural; with the first pointing the second. Newman put it: ‘Of necessity, Providence is secretly concurring and co-operating with that system which meets the eye.’ (Nature and Supernature) The book of nature that can be read in the light of faith and understood as something that both emanates from and points to the Word. (A priest recently put it to me beautifully thus: ‘The Mass is a jewel in its setting, which is the liturgy of the hours; and the two together are a cluster of precious stones that themselves have a setting which is the cosmos.’)

The symbolism of which we speak in this particular example is firmly rooted in the tradition, and is biblically based and so we can happily use it. But if we accept the value of the richer, gothic interpretation – should we aim to restore it uncritically? Certainly, much of it we can adopt quite happily – and many of the observations of nature would be considered true today, or at least acceptable even if not literally true (even in today’s rationialist society people accept some ideas that might be difficult to establish scientifically (eg the courage of the lion).

However, what if some of the interpretation is based upon what was believed at the time to be scientific fact, and which is no longer held to be true or even accepted as myth? I am thinking here of the idea that the eagle looks directly into the sun, or that lions sleep with their eyes open. (My understanding is that neither is considered true today).

I would say that to include such aspects of the gothic symbolism in our picture would reduce the possibilities of it being broadly accepted, and so undermine the greater point we are trying to make. However, we don’t need to abandon the idea altogether. We should not be afraid to develop and adapt them based upon things that we do know to be true. If gothic man could read the book of nature, why can’t we learn to do it too? In fact once we accept the principle, modern science might even enrich our symbolic reading of nature. Who would have thought, for example, see here,that in particle physics, the ‘flavours’ of the sub-atomic ‘hadronic particles’ would follow the pattern of the Pythagorean tetractys, which symbolises musical harmony and was described in Boethius’s De Musica? To take another example, the four ‘elements’ of Aristotle – air, earth, fire, and water – do not correspond to the physical elements of modern physics and chemistry, but do symbolise very well what would be described today as the physical states of matter – solid, liquid, gas and energy (or perhaps plasma). The idea being communicated is the same.

Similarly, if indeed the eagle does not look directly into the sun, the symbolism of the eagle can easily be adapted into something that we do accept to be true today and is emphasizing the same point – it has extraordinary eyesight that operates in dim and bright light and could be seen as a symbol of one who is focused on the Light with an unerring and penetrating gaze.

Images: top, 9th century German ivory; second from top, tiles manufactured by the Pugin company in England in the 19th century; third from top, Christ in Majesty, illustration by David Clayton for Meet the Angels; and below the four evangelists by Rubens.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Scott Abeln April 6, 2011 at 12:42 am

The medieval bestiary has gotten a revival of some sort in recent years, although not from the best of sources. Consider the use of fantastical beasts in the Harry Potter books: I would think that many children would know about the phoenix. The Goth subculture may be fertile ground for evangelization using this sort of art.

When I was a teenager, I read about the pious pelican in Mallory’s Le Morte D’arthur, and that image vividly burned into my memory. Not being Catholic at the time, I was unaware that this was a common symbol, but I found that image inspiring and touching.

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davidicons April 6, 2011 at 10:39 am

thank you – very interesting thoughts. I once gave a talk in an LA art gallery about sacred geometry and this brought many Goths to the lecture. They loved the cosmic symbolism going back to the ancient Greeks. But I hadn’t thought of this aspect of the symbolism of nature would be fertile too. What a good idea!

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