26 OCTOBER 1867, Page 21


Tim majority of symbolic usages and implements have been devised for practical purposes, and have become symbolic from the popular mode or fashion- of looking at them. It is, of course, possible to frame a ceremonial on representative principles ; but even the old sacrifices of edible animals were well suited to the daily needs of the sacrificial ministers. But those who study fashions, whether from necessity or taste, are mostly not wont to

themselves about their origins ; and hence the writer of an elementary text-book on Christian Symbolism may be allowed by a large class of readers to treat the subject, as far as he chooses, in the summary and positive style of the guide who attends us at a cathedral. We just want him to be well informed about notori- ous facts or received opinions where the facts cannot well be vouched for. We do not interrupt him at every turn to ask him for his authorities or arguments ; he would soon desert us if we did so, to join some group of less punctilious and more hasty travellers. Mr. Thompson's defect as a guide is not that he lacks the most needful information, or a sufficient general confi- dence in his own ability to instruct us. But he betrays a singular uneasiness lest we should transgress the bounds of moderation in addicting ourselves to the study he ostensibly recommends ; he is perpetually apprehensive of a tendency in symbolism to corrupt and materialize Christian doctrines. This tendency has in our opinion been grossly overestimated ; for symbolism can hardly obscure an idea which has once been clearly received, though it can certainly, on the other hand, render notorious the diversities of the practical impressions that are produced by the treacherous language of theologic formulas. It was not before the de- velopment of the Creeds that God began to be painted like two men and one dove together. We must remember that it is a difficult thing to teach by symbols, though it may be easy thereby to remind us of our cherished ideas and sentiments. Their familiar usage is not suited to command and concentrate our attention, but rather to modify imperceptibly the under-currents of our thoughts, which can never be restrained within due bounds but by a positive and philosophic teaching. Near the outset our author seems to have taken almost too much pains to distinguish the natures of a diagram, a picture, and a symbol ; but his defini- tions get no practical application, because we find that the same representation may be a symbol to one man and a portrait to another, as he apprehends less or more materially the same doc- trines, or doctrines that pass current as the same. In other respects his exordium is an erratic one, and stirs up question after question which he cannot solve for us, but is obliged to evade or drop with a needless display of fallibility for the maker of an oracular text- book. Ile has touched upon Egyptian symbolism, Assyrian symbolism, and the symbolism of humanity when it first began to clothe itself; but he has skipped over all the immediate ante- cedents of the symbols of Christendom, because he finds that the field opened to us by the art and mythology of Greece and Rome would tempt us to unduly prolonged rambles. Ile is then arrested by the difficulty, "How came it to pass that Christians, whose distinguishing tenet regarding worship pledged them to a spiritual conception of the Deity as alone worthy, and to a spiritual cultus as alone acceptable, should, nevertheless, adopt, as they certainly did, the symbolic method" (of teaching Y) Here he- at once assumes, according to his habit, that the tenets of the early Christians were as abstract as his own ; he does not choose to

• 'Symbols of Cliri.lendom. An Elementary and Introductory 'Et-Bouk. By J. Radfurd Tttutepsun, ld.A. L.11d0U: L.namsu aud Cu. 1567. inquire how they really understood the Incarnation when they used to paint Christ (and not a group of three figures) as Jehovah making Adam, and how this view must have promoted a taste for sacred pictures such as Mosaicism has never prompted. He is -satisfied to observe that the symbolic mode of teaching, having been abundantly used under the old dispensation, has been sanc- tioned for Christians by the author of the Apocalypse. Hereupon he undertakes to examine what kind of symbols are sanctioned by St. John the Divine, and apparently suggests the conclusion -that they must be exceedingly vague an I futile symbols. For he favours us with a "classified enumeration of the Apocalyptic symbols (and this without laying down any distinct views as to the meaning and value of this book, or affecting to examine how it was commonly interpreted in the early days of Christian art), and tells us, among other things, that the Number of the Beast is founded on the Hebrew word for mystery, and that the witnesses were two because the Law had enacted, "In the mouth of two or more witnesses shall every word be established." These are very safe views, certainly ; but the author of the Apocalypse has at most periods been thought to have conceived a little more sub- stantially the phenomena be was predicting ; and it is not by a method like this that Christian artists have explained his four "beasts, or his female figures.

, But it will appear from the above and many other passages that it is much more natural to Mr. Thompson to write against ordinary =symbols than of them ; and that be has undertaken to inoculate us with a moderate notion of symbolism and ritualism, with no -other object than to prevent our taking the disease hereafter in a fuller and a fatal way.

In order to advance his views gradually, where peremptorily he cannot, Mr. Thompson takes every opportunity of recom- mending what we may call palliated or inyallidated symbols as the best, or at least as the most venial. He prefers the --cross to the crucifix, and even speaks without disapprobation of fancy crosses, as the Maltese and that of Saint Andrew, which seem to have been devised, like language by Talleyrand's theory, to conceal our impressions of the great fact of Chris- tian history. Apart from moralizing, he succeeds, when he has once fairly entered into his proper subject, in presenting us with a tolerably complete epitome of Christian symbolism under -the heads of the "Symbols of the Catacombs," the "Cross and the Monogram," "the Crown and the Nimbus," "Symbols of Divine Persons," of "Human Persons," of "Christian Architec- ture," and "Christian Worship." But he is more negligent than we should have expected of dates and local references, and of the -distinctions that should be drawn between natural and acci- -dental symbols, as well as between those that have been popu- larly recognized and those which have been traced only by a few or by obscure theorists. His researches seem, moreover, to have -been too much limited to the usages of the Latin Church.

We have hitherto spoken about the objects pursued in this -work ; the entertainment to be derived from it, we must confess, is very meagre. The mind of the author is too hesitating, and his imagination too sleepy, to qualify him even in simple details to Rive a distinct and impressive account of any type and antitype. We may instance one of his paragraphs about the significance of colours, where he says, " Green, as a neutral colour, and as the usual livery of the earth, is the symbol of cheerfulness and hope." This is a sentence that we might have swallowed like a pill; but the more we chew upon it, the more unable is our palate to retain it ; nay, even "our gorge rises at it." How come cheexful- ness and hope to be viewed as neutral states of mind or neutral somethings ? and why should feelings so easily separated be repre- -sented by the same hue ? Nor yet have we, it must be confessed, so much Christian resignation as to understand that hope and cheerfulness are anything like the usual livery of the inhabited earth. We used rather to suppose that green represented hope, because the leaf (not valued in itself) gave the first promise of the ilower and the fruit. We fancy Mr. Thompson must have seen some such account of the matter, and that he has remodelled by -the use of a Laputan composing machine, which is warranted to produce sound, but not sense on all occasions.

On going back to the "symbols of the Catacombs," we find some observations upon the fish "engraved on seals, lamps," &c., of 'which it is difficult to apprehend the full import. "In classic symbolism the fish denoted the watery element" [this means, we suppose, that fishes are introduced to show where the water lies, as we see passim in the Nineveh bas-reliefs]. "And this, when we remember the importance attached to baptism in the primitive theology, will account for its appropriation by the Christian Church." [Appropriation to what ? Did the Church appropriate the fish to the water, or simply to some part of the baptismal apparatus?] "There may also have been in this and in the cognate emblem of the fisher an allusion to the craft of the Apostles of the Lake, and our Lord's command to be- come fishers of men. But the emblem was rendered more im- portant and significant by the discovery that the letters of the Greek word for fish were the initial letters of the equivalents in that language for Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour." In all this it seems to be intimated that the fish at one time meant "Jesus Christ," &c., and had previously meant something else. For the prior meaning we are left in suspense, till we read, after several intervening chapters, of a "comparison between the [baptized] Christian and the fish, as in a passage of Tertullian." Hence we should infer that IXOTY, had first stood for the Christian, afterwards for Christ ; but on what grounds either usage or both have been connected with the "symbols of the Catacombs," the author of the handbook has not deigned to inform his pupils. In the midst of many such platitudes, we must own that he has preserved a plausible semblance of method and scholarship, which may effectually recommend his work to the patronage of many formal and martinet instructors. But pupils may be tempted to think, "He has turned the subject up and down, hither and yonder, and has left it as dry on all sides as the most careful nurse would make the cuticle of an infant who is returned to her arms from under the roaring breakers on the coast at Broadstairs."