Essay | Symbols of the Heavens

Archaeology, Architecture, Art, Churches, ITALY, Liturgy, Ravenna, Rome, Siena, Student Essays

by Megan Mitchell, M.A.R. ’15, religion and visual art

“The faithful will feel a need to daub the symbols of their heavens onto dark cellar walls—to ensure what is around them will fortify the truths within them.”

Alain De Botton, The Architecture of Happiness, 112          

This is a quote I had saved in the past, but I jotted it down again during one of our bus rides through rolling Tuscan countryside—in Italy it took on new weight. It seemed that nearly every surface in the cities had been marked in some medium by the “symbols of the heavens.” Weaving through the catacombs hidden under Santa Priscilla in Rome, we saw the spaces where the bones of early Christians had been laid to rest more than one thousand years ago. The dark walls and ceilings of the tombs hold some of the earliest Christian paintings, dating back to around 250 CE. The infancy of Christian iconography was beautiful in its simplicity—truly the daubing of symbols: three wise-men here, a peacock there, three men in flames, the Good Shepherd, a mother nursing her child. With their brushes these artists turned the tombs—a place of death—into a place of hope. Out of their symbols grew the tradition we know now. What started as simple marks on “dark cellar walls” grew into the constructing of domes, the covering of ceilings with glittering tesserae, the frescoing of walls, the mastering of the classical figure in paint, and the chiseling of massive blocks of marble into monuments and fountains spilling out into the streets.

We saw a vast web of symbols in Italy, drawing on classical, biblical, hagiographical, and natural sources. In Ravenna we saw shells with pearls symbolizing the virgin birth, kairos crosses, and crowns of glory in the Byzantine tradition. In Siena, the stars covering the vaulted ceiling of the Duomo drew our music and our minds up to the heavens. In Florence we saw the baptistery I cannot get out of my mind, in which a massive mosaic Christ sits in judgment on an octagonal domed ceiling. Around him swirl scenes ranging from creation to Christ’s life to end times. It is striking to imagine what it would have been like to enter that space for the first time to be baptized, firelight sparkling off the glass seraphim above you and the holy water surrounding you. Professor Tom Troeger noted in conversation how these artists understood transcendence. He said, “We are impoverished today.” I had to agree.

The mosaic ceiling of the Florence baptistry

The mosaic ceiling of the Florence baptistry

Then there was Rome, where symbols from long before Christendom can be seen. Some have been appropriated, incorporated, or converted, some destroyed, and others left. At times it is hard to make sense of all the symbols. Rome is wild to me; it is a city of paradoxes. It bears traces of the best and the worst of human history in one place: humanity at its most cruel, and most creative, its most polluted, and most pure. In Rome you weave your way through swarms of people from everywhere, and even more people, or their remains anyway, lie beneath the surfaces you stand on. It puts into perspective how small a sliver on the timeline of human history the life-world you occupy really is. Last Judgment depictions serve as reminders that our medieval and Renaissance ancestors had a more vivid awareness of their own mortality than we tend to. Rome possesses the strange power of situating your body and being in a narrative and then sparking questions of the meaning of your place in it. Perhaps this is one part of the reason why the still moment at the center of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel vortex has haunted pilgrims for ages. To me that symbolic image of the space between the hands is about the sacred gift of existence and the question of why we were each given that grace.

Megan soaks up Italy

Megan soaks up Italy

In Italy we encountered, and contemplated, and sought to be marked by the symbols we saw, but then had to leave. Home, though, is where it is our turn. It is where we are called to be the kind of artists who reveal, interpret, or create the symbols that inspire and fortify faith in our own communities, as our faithful forerunners did in theirs.