Catholic CornucopiadCheney

82. Conclusion

Catholic Customs and Symbols

This volume has attempted to give a bird’s-eye view of a vast panorama. In such a view many objects are discerned, but to none can great space be given. A general comment may well be extracted from Father Thurston’s admirable article on Symbolism in The Catholic Encyclopedia: “In a greater or less degree symbolism is essential to every kind of external worship, and we need not shrink from the conclusion that in the matter of baptisms and washings, of genuflexions and other acts of reverence, of lights and sweet smelling incense, of flowers and white vestures, of unctions and the imposing of hands, of sacrifice and the rite of the communion banquet, the Church has borrowed, without hesitation, from the common stock of significant actions known to all periods and to all nations. In such matters as these Christianity claims no monopoly. Religious symbolism is effective precisely in the measure in which it is sufficiently natural and simple to appeal to the intelligence of the people. Hence the choice of suitable acts and objects for this symbolism is not so wide that it would be easy to avoid the appearance of imitation of paganism even if one deliberately set to work to invent an entirely new ritual.”

Many symbolisms are ex post facto, as has been already intimated. Many are originally intended, as in the ceremony of baptism clearly referring to Our Lord’s cure of the blind man; in the phrase based on the Greek word for fish; in the use of Psalm XC, verse 13: “Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon.” The association of this text with Our Saviour is clearly shown in the much-discussed ivory book cover (dating, Earl Baldwin Smith declares, about 800 A. D.) in the Bodleian, Oxford. It is one leaf of a small diptych, having a central panel surrounded by twelve smaller ones. The central panel is a figure of Christ: “In His right hand he holds a cross which rests on His shoulder; His left hand bears an open book. With the right foot He treads upon the lion and with His left upon the dragon, while beneath the lion is the asp and beneath the dragon is the basilisk. On one side of the open book is inscribed the monogram

and on the other sheet are the first two words
SUP (er)
ASP (idem)
of the ninety-first Psalm” (E. B. Smith, Early Christian Iconography). In the Vulgate (Ps. 90:13) we read the Latin of the quoted text: “Super aspidem et basiliscum ambulabis: et conculcabis leonem et draconem.” Our English Bible (Challoner-Douay) translates the verse: “Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon.” Similarly, “The arch of triumph, between the central nave and the sanctuary, in the Christian basilica-church, was figurative of the transition through death, and the decoration of the apse and tribune are often clearly intended to give the idea of heaven or the apocalyptic Jerusalem, with the Presence of God” (Tyrwhitt, art, “Symbolism” in Dict. of Christian Antiquities). Or again, a uniquely Christian symbolism might be based on a fact of Pagan Rome: “There was an important symbolism connected with the crypt of the basilica, which connects the larger churches with the primitive worship and celebrations in the catacombs, and may probably be coeval with the Book of Revelation [the Apocalypse]. The altar of a cubiculum was originally the table-tomb above the remains of a martyr. It is scarcely possible not to connect this with the passage in Rev. 6:9, referring to the souls of the faithful to death, who cry from below the altar; nor with the parallel use to which the crypt (or prison cell) of a Roman was converted. In Christian hands the crypt became the tomb of the martyr or saint to whom the church was dedicated, and its altar was placed directly above his sarcophagus or grave ... An altar in later days could not be consecrated without relics” (Ib.).