A Systematic Scheme of Images

Though I do not believe places of public worship are any more to be consecrated as the Temple was in Jerusalem, I do think it most orderly and fitting that certain places be designated for that purpose, and designed to promote that end. Though these places are not holier than any other – for the New Testament has no commandment even to set aside houses of worship, much less an assertion of their greater sanctity – the authorities and the architects would be wise to fit these places to the help of those of who worshipped therein. Therefore it is important to consider carefully the way to lay out and adorn a house of prayer.

For this reason I think the presence of images in church buildings should be restrained and subject to constant evaluation. The point is to edify the worshipper, and images that have the opposite effect should be either taken down or hidden. Even if there be an image ordained by God for a salutary purpose, even then it must be broken if it cease to edify the people: He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan. Of such prudence God approves as much in the New Testament as he does in the Old.

Nevertheless, I continue to be interested in iconography in churches, united to the architecture in a scheme that can be read. So here is a plan of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice:

Between the main entrance and the Lord’s Table are three domes and three broad arches. In the cathedral’s current scheme, the dome closest to the main entrance to the west is called the Pentecost Dome, for it depicts the coming of the Holy Ghost on Whitsunday; the central dome is called the Ascension Dome, for it depicts Christ’s ascension into heaven. Upon this one can conceive of a systematic scheme of pictures.

Following the general lines of St Mark’s mosaics, one can posit one movement toward the Lord’s Table and another movement away from it. The former can be represented by the large arches, and the latter by the domes.

Before the remembrance of the Lord’s death, one may think of his baptism, fasting, and temptation. So the first arch, nearest the entrance, may remind the worshipper of his own baptism by depicting the baptism of Christ by St John Baptist in the river Jordan. The second arch would well depict the Christ’s fasting for forty days in the wilderness and especially his threefold temptation by the devil; through this depiction the worshipper can remember his fasting in this life and remember to rely on every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Indeed, if the worshipper has fasted to prepare to receive the Lord’s Supper, he will need to have trusted not in himself but in the love of God. The third arch would best show a third scene of Christ’s humility: the washing of his disciples’ feet, just before the supper at which he instituted the sacrament of holy communion.

The remembrance of his Agony and bloody Sweat, of his Cross and Passion, and of his precious Death and Burial would better be left to his ordained signs than shown in pictures. There is no need for crucifixes here, as Addleshaw says in The High Church Tradition:

The best explanation for the absence of a cross or crucifix was given in the last century by the famous Bishop Philpotts of Exeter, one of the last of the old High Churchmen. He maintained that a cross or crucifix is peculiarly unsuitable as an ornament at the Eucharist. The Eucharistic sacrifice is a pleading here on earth of Calvary as an actual, living, triumphant reality; the cross speaks of Calvary as an event, dead and past, and encourages people to think of the Eucharist as ‘nothing more than a bare remembrance of what is past and gone’.

So a reticence in the pictures is suitable, that the present reality of the sacrament may shine forth.

And then from the sacrament would follow the three domes. The first dome, nearest the Lord’s Table, ruled by the Father in light inaccessible, would show the post-Resurrection appearances of Christ, to Mary Magdalene, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then to doubting Thomas. The second dome, ruled by the Son, would show the Ascension of the Son as it does now; likewise the third and outermost dome, ruled by the Holy Ghost, would show the descent of his power upon the twelve Apostles. Thus Christians having received the Lord’s Supper would constantly remember the reality of the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Ghost.

Finally, the wall over the west entrance, upon the worshippers’ exit, would show the Last Judgement. Come, Lord Jesus.

One response to “A Systematic Scheme of Images

  1. Pingback: The Apse in a Systematic Scheme of Images | Cogito, Credo, Petam

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