Symbolism in Incarnation Church’s Architecture
As modern Catholics, we sometimes overlook the labyrinthine and enchanting paths that have led to the 21st century Church as we know Her today. The story of the Church is surely the most exceptional and marvelous saga in the long march of human history. And it is still unfolding. It begins with Her inception among a small band of itinerant Jewish men and women, unremarkable even in the backwater of first-century Judea (fishermen, and tradesmen and dissidents, with a sprinkling of respected patricians and minor officials). Then came the sea-change that overtook them all on that Pentecost morning–and the certainly supernatural energy that suddenly motivated them to form the Catholic Church as we know it, and to embark on the mission that would inevitably cost them their lives, but ennoble the world for all time. The Faith, under divine guidance, swept through the world in the first few centuries, despite massive persecutions and disruptive internal heresies. And at the collapse of the enfeebled Roman Empire, it was the Church that tamed the barbarians and gave us the legacy of Christian Civilization. Throughout it all, Her sons and daughters created expressions of their faith that survive even to this day. The path has been sometimes rocky, sometimes twisting, but always fascinating. The world of the first century Christians consisted primarily of the many federated peoples, more or less subservient to the Roman Empire, surrounding The Mediterranean; and then the lesser-known lands beyond the borders of the empire. All had their own language, customs, and culture. From the beginning, the use of symbolism to communicate ideas in a universal language became commonplace. Perhaps the best known of these early Christian representations was that of the “ichthus” (icqus) or “fish”. It is an anagram. Each of the five Greek letters was the first letter of a series of 5 words, Jesus;Christ;God;Son;Saviour. Here was the basic Christian creed, preceding perhaps even the Apostles’ Creed, stating in symbolic form that Jesus was the Messiah, He was God, He was man, and He was Saviour. An early Christian, upon meeting someone whom he thought might be a believer, but reluctant to declare his faith openly for fear of persecution, would simply draw the first curved line of the glyph. The other person, if he was another Christian, would complete the figure of the fish.
Our house of worship, The Church of the Incarnation, abounds with these early symbols of our faith. Many of their origins are lost in the mists of time, but all possess a power to recall to our minds the many wonderful mysteries of our religion. In addition to meditating on the truths of our faith embraced in these symbols, we can also take confirmation from how they attest to the venerable antiquity of our beliefs, and how they serve as authenticators of the continuity of those convictions.
The Exterior Front
Beginning with the entrance to the church, we see engraved on the facade the words “DOMUS MEA DOMUS ORATIONIS, VOCABITUR DICIT DOMINUS”. The words are from St. Matthew’s gospel, when Christ cleansed the temple. But they are also a restatement by Christ of the words of Isaias 56/7 ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’ thus sayeth The Lord. We are called to remember that the church building, although only a work of man, has been dedicated to a higher purpose, to the public worship of God.
Flanking the double entry doors, standing guard, we find, on the left The Archangel Michael, with his sword of retribution “and do thou, O prince of the heavenly host, cast into hell, Satan and all the evil spirits” and, on the right, The Archangel Gabriel, herald to the Virgin, with his fabled horn. In the center, just above the door is one of the most interesting symbols adorning the church, the Manus Dei or “hand of God”. For nearly eight hundred years in the beginning of the Christian epoch this symbol was the only one used to depict God the Father. It evokes the many Old Testament references to God “stretching out his hand” to the Jewish people, either in mercy or in anger. It is always associated with a nimbus (halo) of three bars, representing the Trinity, or with rays (in this case). To acquire a concept of just how long this symbol persisted as the only representation of the Father in the early Church, consider that it was in use longer than the time from today back to the Magna Carta. Or alternatively, it persisted in early Christianity for a time longer than England has been protestant. Included in the grille are the mystic rose, symbol of the purity and power of the Blessed Virgin, the descending dove, depicting the gifts of the Spirit, and the Chi Rho, (Cr) the ancient Greek monogram of Christ.
High above, on either side of the great window, are friezes of the Twelve Apostles; Andrew, Jude, Peter, James the Greater, John, Matthew, Philip, Simon, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthias, and James the Less. Note in particular the first on the left, St. Andrew, and his cross saltire in the shape of an X, the “Cross of St. Andrew”, the emblem of Scotland; also St Peter with his key, and St. John with his poisoned chalice. Additionally, we can see, on the right side, St Thomas the “church builder” with his square and saw, and St. James the Less and the “fuller’s bat” with which he was martyred in Jerusalem. Surrounding the great window, there are several symbols, the most common being the fleur de lis and the star. Several forms of the star (a symbol of the nativity) and shamrock (a symbol of the Trinity) are seen in decorations throughout the exterior and interior of the church.
Above the south entrance to the narthex (vestibule) are two extremely ancient symbols. High above, is the “Cross of the Patriarchs”superimposed with the keys symbolizing St. Peter and his commissioning by Christ. The cross, with its short extra crossbar representing the inscription above the crucified Christ, IESUS NAZARENUS, REX IUDAEORUM (Jesus the Nazarean, King of the Jews), was an early symbol of Episcopal authority. The combined symbol represents the supreme Episcopal authority of the Roman Pontiff, successor to Peter.
Below, above the south door, is the glyph of Alpha and Omega, (AW) the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and representing Christ as the beginning and end of all things. This figure in Greek is an attempt to represent an even earlier Hebrew concept of God as the beginning and the end, the embodiment of all power and all existence. The first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph and thaw, are the first and last letters of the Hebrew word, Emeth (Truth). This had a sacred symbolism to the Jews, and this symbolism was translated by early Christian Jews to the early Catholic Church. Unfortunately, not all of the meaning translated well, since the last letter of the Greek word for truth, aletheia, is not the Omega. Looking above the door to the south transept entrance we see another glyph, representing the Blessed Virgin. The intertwined symbol MR (Maria Regina) rests below a crown that is topped by a crescent of five stars. This is an ancient symbol for the Virgin, recalling the words of the Apocalypse, describing the mother of the Child with the moon at her feet and her crown of stars, and a modern representation of the Immaculate Conception. The Ave Regina is part of an antiphon of poetic composition existing from at least the fourteenth century:
Ave regina caelorum; Ave decus angelorum; Ave gaudium sanctorum
On the north side of the church, the first symbol noticed is just to the right of the vestibule side-entrance. It consists of a dove, with a rayed nimbus (halo), descending into a chalice, or alternatively a baptismal font, and is charged with great significance for the Incarnation. The chalice signifies Mary, the vessel of the Father, filled with the Spirit at the moment of the Incarnation. The representation is doubly symbolic of the Holy Ghost participating both in Baptism and in the Sacrifice of the Mass at the time of the epiklesis or calling down the Spirit, in the Quam oblationem just before the consecration. It is an extremely dramatic and powerful expression, with multiple meanings. It symbolizes the Trinitarian nature of God. He is present completely, Father, Son, and Spirit, in the Eucharist. It depicts the power of the Holy Spirit, in the rays of light and power emanating from the dove. And it portrays the concept of the Holy Spirit as the means by which God manifests his will, particularly here, in the mysteries of the Incarnation, of Baptism, and the Transubstantiation.
Further to the east, above the entrance to the north transept, is the glyph representing St. Joseph–a lily and a builder’s square. This is presumably intended to balance with the symbol of Our Lady above the entrance to the south transept, described earlier.
Above the door is the symbol in Greek Ihs. This is a monogram for the word ihsus, “Jesus”. Normally, a short bar intersects the “h”indicating an abbreviation.
Finally, the small medallion on the steps to the sacristy is worthy of mention, not for any particular uniqueness, but for the subject matter, the shamrock, an original and ancient Irish formulation for the Trinity, which will be found in profusion throughout Incarnation’s interior.
As we turn to the interior of the church, entering through the west doors into the vestibule the first symbol that greets us is above the entry to the main aisle, above the lintel. Here, hand carved into the marble, are the symbols of the four evangelists–Matthew, the winged man, Mark, the winged lion, Luke, the winged ox, and John, the eagle. Tradition has it that these symbols derived from Mathew’s focus on the human genealogy of Christ, and the vision of Ezekiel; from Mark’s beginning his narrative with John the Baptist preaching in the desert, hence a desert animal; from Luke’s emphasis on sacrificial atonement, hence the beast of sacrifice; and from the “soaring”testimony of John, who begins his Gospel with the description of the Logos in heaven with God.
As we progress down the center aisle, the magnificent crucifix, on a background of golden mosaic first catches our attention, and beneath it, in the center of the high altar, the great bronze tabernacle with the depiction of the Annunciation cast in its door. The altar rises on five steps from the raised area behind the altar rail. The motif of “five”is seen in several architectural features leading to and focusing on the altar. First, the figures engraved in the pillars of the forward part of the nave contain five levels of incisions leading to the topmost symbol.
The symbols alternate on the pillars. First, there is the bishop’s crozier topped with a shamrock motif, symbolic of the good shepherd, and ecclesiastical authority, and, of course, the saints of Ireland; and then the torch, symbolic of Christ’s passion.
Incised in the great arch which frames the sanctuary are five notches, the fifth extending above the entire nave. Along the back of the sanctuary, the five strips of marble framing the sacred space continue this series of fives. All combine in a powerful symbolism recalling the sacrifice of Christ and his five wounds. As we approach the sanctuary a striking symbol can be seen in the floor, at the intersection of the cross aisle before the communion rail. The basic motif is the four pointed star, symbolic of Christ’s birth and foretelling the means of his death. Superimposed upon the star is a quatrefoil, the intersection of four circles, traditionally symbolizing the Four Evangelists and their message of salvation. The way in which the quatrefoil intersects the star creates an additional star within the first, this one bearing eight points, a traditional star symbol for Christ’s circumcision on the eighth day, rebirth and regeneration, and the new life of baptism.
A small “quarter step”rises at the foot of the communion rail, providing a raised area from which the priest may distribute communion. But we do not enter the sanctuary proper until we ascend the five steps leading to the altar, the “mountain of God². At the base of these steps, behind the communion rail, the terrazzo is inlaid with a series of squares connected by smaller squares, across the breadth of the church. The square with its four corners has several symbolic meanings, but here it suggests the earth and its “four corners”. In other words, it is setting off the realm of earth from that of the sanctuary, where we enter the realm of the almighty. The five steps of the sanctuary are divided into two lower steps and the upper three before the high altar. In the level space between the series of steps the terrazzo is inlaid with three Greek crosses symbolizing the Trinity. These crosses are of unusual design, similar to, but slightly different from the Maltese cross. The inlaid symbols in the face of the high altar are the alpha and the omega. Here, the lower case form of the omega is used. On either side of the altar are two significant medallions.
On the north side is the depiction of the pelican and her young. An extremely early Christian tradition connected the pelican, which was believed to pluck open its own breast to feed its young in times of famine, with the sacrifice of Christ for mankind. The 13th century Eucharistic hymn of St. Thomas Aquinas, “O Loving Pelican! O Jesu Lord, Unclean I am, but cleanse me in Thy Blood!”refers to this symbol of the Atonement.
On the south wall of the sanctuary is a relief picturing the Holy Cross springing forth with a fountain of “eternal life-giving water”from which two stags or gazelles, a symbol of devotion and faithfulness, are drinking. This was a common symbol of baptism. This recalls the words of Psalm 42, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God!” On the canopy or baldachino above the high altar the inscription IX is combined, representing in Greek the first two letters of Christos or Christ. And high above, on the dome of the sanctuary, is portrayed the dove, ancient symbol of the Holy Spirit, descending as at the baptism of John. Although the figure does not have the traditional nimbus, or halo, signifying the Spirit, the location and the scale all indicate the intention to depict the third Person of the Trinity, rather than the alternative symbolism of the virtue of hope.
Throughout the interior of the church, in both nave and transepts, are small decorative symbols that cause us to meditate on the mysteries they depict or the concepts they evoke. On the side altars, the traditional ichthus, or fish, is found in a unique representation of three fishes in a circular seal. This is symbolic of Christ in his role as a member of the Trinity. On the walls behind these side altars, and sprinkled throughout the nave (often disguising the ventilation ducts) are a series of symbols.
The wheel with eight spokes is symbolic of life and regeneration in the spirit, and recalls the vision of Ezekiel. The dove, symbolizes hope, the gifts of the Spirit, and divine inspiration. The seven sheaves of wheat and grapes recall the bread and wine of the Eucharist, as well as the grain of wheat that falls to the ground to die, bringing forth a “hundredfold”new fruits. Also, it recalls the parable of the wheat and the chaff, and the seven sacraments and gifts of the Spirit. The alpha and omega is repeated here, and the keys of St Peter. The trifoil, three intertwined circles (a stylized shamrock), overlaid with a triangle, are both symbols of the Trinity and of eternity. Also the Maria Regina symbol is seen here as it was on the exterior, described earlier.
On the upper level of the nave pillars in the clerestory there can be discerned the symbol of the potted lily, alternating with a bishop’s peaked hat, or mitre. The lily has many nuances, symbolizing the Resurrection, purity, Our Lady, and related themes. The bishop’s hat is symbolic of the shepherds of the Church, the successors of the apostles, and our continuity with them throughout the centuries. Also on these upper pillars can be seen more shamrocks, a common symbol in our church. On the great arch of the sanctuary are two fleur de lis, a stylized lily, symbolic of the Blessed Virgin, and since its adoption as a motif by the kings of France around the eleventh century, a symbol of royalty.
On the north side of the nave, near the rear, stands a lovely baptistery, with an inlaid floor of terrazzo, and entered through a beautifully decorated iron gate. Some of the symbols in this gate we have seen before, such as the dove, but here we find a new and extremely ancient one. On the bottom of the gate there is depicted a cockle-shell with drips of water. This is a symbol going back to nearly apostolic times, representing the sacrament of Baptism. The shell symbol, without the water, also is representative of pilgrimage (presumably because pilgrimages took place mostly over the sea) and became a symbol of pilgrims, and in particular the symbol of St. James the Greater, who was thought to have visited Spain and preached the gospel there. The site of the burial of Santiago (Saint Iago–James) de Compostela in Spain was the goal of many pilgrims throughout the centuries.
The font itself is of a design stretching back to earliest times–the octagon. Baptismal fonts of octagon form are found all over the world, their eight-sided shape symbolizing regeneration and rebirth. No one is sure just how this custom began, but it is exceptionally ancient. One possible explanation is that the number eight represented one more than the “perfect”number seven, and therefore represented beginning over. Recall that God created the earth in six days and then on the seventh, “He rested”.
Turning to the other decorations in the church, these symbols are more familiar to us today, because we still practice the devotions they represent. The beautifully detailed stations of the cross represent the path of Christ on his way to Calvary, the small icons in the transepts depict the Seven Sorrows of Mary, and the three lancet windows in the south transept hold the icons of the three most revered saints of Ireland, St. Brigid, St. Patrick, And St. Columba of Iona, or St. Columbcille.
It would appear that the original builder of the church, or an Irish patron, was at work here. The glass is of fine quality, with rich hues of blue and green, and on a sunny afternoon fills the south transept with beams of multicolored light. The clerestory windows number seven, the “perfect”number, on each side of the nave. In them are depicted fourteen of the mysteries of the Holy Rosary. The beams cascading from their translucent surfaces decorate the church with a multitude of dazzling colors. But there are fifteen mysteries, what of the one remaining? Look east, to the choir loft, and the magnificent Redemption window. Here we see God’s plan unfold, from the sin of Adam, to the promises of redemption, to its fulfillment. The opening event in the fulfillment of that redemptive plan, the first Joyful Mystery, is stunningly depicted here in over one hundred square feet of rich, multicolored glass. The first verse of the Ave Maria, in Latin, unfolds across the glowing surface. Mary, seated next to a scroll containing the words of Isaias, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son”, voices her assent. This is truly one of the finest stained glass windows in this diocese, and is a fitting symbol of what our church’s name, the Church of the Incarnation, recalls. For it was at the moment of Mary’s fiat, her act of unconditional submission to and cooperation with God’s will, that the Saviour became incarnate in her womb. At that moment, the Incarnation was effected, through the submission of Mary and the action of the Holy Spirit. And here began the final movement in the symphony of salvation.
The multitude of symbolic representations both inside and outside our church help us to further appreciate the long and venerable history of our Faith, and give us a means to connect with our rich Christian heritage. Additionally, as we worship, our perception of these symbols calls us to meditate more deeply on the sacred mysteries of our religion, handed down to us by the Apostles from the first century to this very day and hour.
© 1996-2001 Incarnation Parish
Compiled by Steve Whitlock
Dennis Doyle, webmaster