Symbols, Forms and Shapes
“In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God, And the Word was God” Gospel of John
“ That which can be seen is made by the power of God and consists of the four elements - earth, water, fire and air.”
The Lost Sutras of Jesus
“ For I am the height and the depth, the circle and the descending light.” Hildegard of Bingen
The forms and colours used in sacred art derive from long standing traditions. Some of the shapes go way back beyond Christianity, or any recognised, formal religion. The most universal of these forms are the circle, triangle and square. These respectively symbolize the Heavens, the ascending spirit/ descending of Grace and the Earth.
Additionally, the Vesica (frequently depicted as a fish) is symbolic of Christ. The Vesica Piscis is formed when two identical circles overlap, each passing through the centre of the other. This came to symbolise Christ because in Him, the two realms of Heaven and Earth are united.
St. Augustine, in his confessions, writes :-
“ The words of your messengers have soared like winged things above the earth beneath the firmament of your Book, for this was the authority given to them and beneath it they were to take wing wherever their journey lay.” Book XIII, Ch. 20.
In the Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit is revealed to us in the form of a dove. The wider Christian tradition, especially of the native peoples of the British Isles, associates a wide variety of birds with different characteristics. For example, the swan is associated with development, the duck with insight and the goose with harmony. The duck and the swan are also symbolic of Mary and St. Bride. Within the tradition of Christian art, birds are also symbolic of Christ in creation.
Flowers feature extensively in Christian symbolism, and there are literally hundreds of flowers and herbs that are symbolic of Mary, mother of Jesus. In Medieval times she was seen as a living paradise of gloriously coloured flowers. Those that feature regularly in Christian illuminated Mss are: violet, rose, strawberry, daisy, marigold, aquilegia, hawthorn, lily and any white flower with golden centre. White is symbolic of Mary's purity and gold the glowing light of her soul.
In the early Christian tradition of the British Isles, the 10 commandments were observed closely. With reference to the artistic tradition, the 2nd commandment says:
'You shall not make for yourself a carved image--any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.'
The early christian art particular to these islands obeyed that edict. The imagery that you find in early, insular manuscript illumination is very abstract. Any imagery that is based upon living things is reduced to its essence and generally does not look like any living plant or animal.
Dividing the Circle
Sacred art frequently starts from a circle. The point where the compasses pierce the paper is symbolic of the grace and will of God piercing the soul. From this moment, all else grows and develops.
The first diagram above is the initial circle, divided by two arcs to form two vesicas.
The other diagrams move from three fold to seven fold. Relating these to solid shapes, we have the sphere, cube, tetrahedron, octahedron, icosahedron and dodecahedron.
Respectively, these symbolise Unity, Earth, Fire and Spirit, Air and Intellect, Water and Psyche and Aether.
These solids, also known as the Platonic solids, symbolically re-enact cosmic history and creation. Some of these forms can also be found in the mean orbits of the planetary bodies of our solar system.
For more on this subject, read up on the works of Keith Critchlow, Robert Lawlor and John Martineau.