Tag: animals

The Cross and the Peacock

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re being watched when you are sitting in your pew?

The colorful “eye” patterns on peacock feathers are supposed to represent the “all-seeing eyes” of the church, and there’s a pair of these peeking out — like an ever-vigilant Santa’s “elf-on-a- shelf — from a half-hidden, half-moon stained-glass window perched above the left confessional at the back of the church.

The two peacock feathers in our window actually form part of a Resurrection tableau, on either side of a cross with five “jewels” in the middle, indicating the five wounds of Christ; diamond-shaped Byzantine lozenges symbolizing the Word of God made flesh; and a calla lily border signifying rebirth.

How do the peacock feathers fit in with the Resurrection theme? That’s a complicated question. Some claim that medieval Europeans long ago believed that peacock meat would never spoil, so peacocks came to represent the “incorruptibile” and, by extension, immortal. Others maintain the fact that peacocks shed their feathers and re-grow them in the Spring, suggested a phoenix-like cycle of rebirth and renewal. According to Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols, the peacock is a symbol for “the blending together of all colours and for the idea of totality. This explains why, in Christian art, it appears as a symbol of immortality and of the incorruptible soul.

Peacocks have a long mystical history in art. Tracing their story, Jelena Andelkovic writes that in ancient India and Ceylon, the peacock was considered a symbol of the sun, because of it plumy tail. In the Greek and Roman worlds, the peacock was the emblem of Dionysus, god of wine; and Juno/Hera. queen of the gods. The eyes in the peacock’s tail represented stars and invoked eternity. This may have been the roots for their association with the all-seeing church, and their use as protective talismans.

Cirlot observes that symbolic peacocks often flanked a “Cosmic Tree” — an ancient association “which came to Islam from Persia and subsequently reached Spain and the West,” and “denotes the psychic duality of man…drawing its life force from the principle of unity.” When peacocks were adopted in Byzantine Christian art (a design inspiration for our church), especially in Ravenna, Italy, Jelkovic notes that they were often shown on sarcophagi with a “Tree of Life” from the Garden of Eden, which “symbolizes the connection between heaven and earth, death and resurrection, and sometimes suggests crucifixion.” Two peacock feathers flanking the wood of a cross in our church might then be intended to signify Christ’s connection with heaven and earth — both human and divine — a theme that is already highlighted in the double-cross motifs below the long, stained glass windows on the parking lot side.

Located above the confessional, our feathers could also offer a meditation on Christ’s sacrifice and an admonition to humility for those examining their conscience before entering the box, since the peacock’s showy tail can represent vanity and pride.  The peacock’s reputation for “incorruptibility” could also be a caution to the ambitious!

In the end, whatever the peacock represents, the real “eyes of the church” are not the ones in the stained-glass feathers above the confessional: they’re ours — acknowledging each other from our pews each week; watching our parish children grow, year by year; looking out for one another; and feeling that we share a bond over time as part of a faith community!


Dolphin and Anchor

DSCN4637 (2)The anchor-and-dolphin design shown on the side of the baptismal font and embedded in the mosaic floor of the old baptistery (today’s Adoration Chapel), is a surprisingly complicated symbol.

The two parts of the design are often read as two separate pictures, then combined. The 1960 SFDS Parish Monthly Bulletin offered a typical explanation of the anchor, connecting it with water and hope: “Hope was represented…by the anchor which the sailor drops into the water, so that it may go down deep into the bottom of the sea and fix itself firmly in order to steady the ship and hold it secure against the winds and waves of any storm. But our hope is an anchor which we throw upward, into the skies of heaven…” Philip Kosloski, at Aleteia, more recently discussed the dolphin symbol, observing that in the ancient world, dolphins “were known as the ‘sailor’s friend’ and there are many legends of dolphins leading mariners to safer shores…” He suggested that over time, “dolphins became a symbol of Jesus Christ, a friend and deliverer to the ‘safer shores’ of heaven.” He then addressed the combined symbol of “dolphins… twisted around an anchor or trident…” which symbolize” the hope of eternal life…”

Rather than a picture symbol, the original meaning could actually have been language-based.  Charles Kennedy puzzled long ago in Biblical Archeology Review, that anchor designs were common on graves in Christian catacombs until the third century, but then they disappeared. Around the same time, the main language of Christians switched from Greek to Latin. Kennedy suggested that “Ankura,” (Greek for “anchor”), could have been a pun on the Greek phrase “en kurio” (“in the Lord”) — so that with the symbol of an anchor, “the dead are sealed with the name of the Lord.” When the language changed, the pun didn’t work anymore and the symbol was abandoned for a time.

As to dolphins – Aristotle called them “fishes,” and his basic classification scheme remained in use in Europe until the 1800s. ICTHYS, Greek for fish, was used in catacombs as an acronym for the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” So, a fish on an anchor in the catacombs could have been a simple linguistic symbol meaning that someone was protected “In the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

 Whatever its origin, the combined symbol of the dolphin and anchor was not much used until the Renaissance, when printer Aldus Manutius, who printed books for the influential Medici popes, adopted a dolphin-and-anchor representation of Neptune as his printer’s emblem – but that’s a whole ‘nother story for another day!


Church Animals

On a Sunday near the feast of St. Francis of Assisi every year, neighbourhood pets of all faiths are welcomed to our parish (with their humans) for the Blessing of the Animals. But have you ever noticed how many animals are in our church already, incorporated in the decorations?!

Our church has a flock of Holy Spirit doves in its artwork: look for a dove in the mosaic lunette above the Mary Altar and another in the Trinity window behind the altarpiece. The dome windows feature descending and ascending doves (“the Holy Spirit among us” and “the graces that lift (humans) up to God through the religious life”). Yet another can be found representing the Annunciation in the first long window on the St. Joseph side.

Perched on the pulpit, halfway up the wall on the Mary side of the church, is a sculpted eagle representing Saint John – the author of the Gospel that begins “In the beginning, was the Word…” The eagle image is repeated on one of the pillars supporting the dome, along with the symbols for the other three Gospel writers: winged ox (Luke), winged lion (Mark), and the more human looking angel, representing Matthew.

Fish appear on one of the windows in the dome. ICTHUS, Latin for fish,  is also an acronym for the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.” Three fishes represent the Holy Trinity. A pelican is shown in another dome window. The pelican was said to pierce its breast with its beak, to feed its young from its own blood when other food was unavailable, and represents the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Yet another dome window features the phoenix: a mythological bird said to burst into flames and regenerate — a symbol of the Resurrection.

The window in the stairway to the choir loft in the back of the church shows the Lamb of God reclining on a book with seven seals — an image from the Book of Revelations, referencing the Second Coming!

At the tops of several of the columns in the church, you can just about identify carved limestone creatures that appear to be two-headed birds. The two-headed eagle was an emblem of Byzantium – fitting the design style of the church.

Live animals should feel at home here! This year’s Blessing of the Animals is Sunday, September 25 at 12:00 Noon.