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Heritage and identity (55). Symbolism of the medieval temple


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Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art

Background and form in the arts are two issues to consider and relate, not only in the world of images and iconography, but also in architectural spaces. The style of religious architecture should not make us forget the role that was given to its different parts, from the spiritual theory. Various texts, sermons, treatises and guidelines on liturgy, from the time of the monuments, provide us with important clues to understand and comprehend, in the context of the different eras and mentalities, how the different parts of the temple were interpreted.

The symbolism can be found in the Romanesque building, and we can speak of a sacred geography, based on the rising of the sun over the horizon and gives us the four cardinal points, basic for the orientation of the spaces. The Apostolic Constitutions foresaw the orientation according to the east-west axis, being scarce the examples that deviate from this rule, which would stop being used, to a great extent, after the Council of Trent.

In the temple oriented in this way, the other cardinal points have a precise significance and the images of the monumental sculpture or mural painting can be read from agreement with the same. The north, region of cold and night, was linked to the Old Testament. The south, on the other hand, is the warm region of light and is affiliated with the New Testament. The west, which faces the setting sun, used to be destined to the Last Judgment, as we see in the cathedral of Tudela.

In the texts of Honorius Augustodunensis (b. 1130)

Honorius of Autun or Augustodunensis (1080-c. 1153) was a A monk theologian, mystic, cosmographer and philosopher, apparently a disciple of St. Anselm of Canterbury, who argued that temporal authority derived from spiritual authority, in the context of the dispute between the emperor and the papacy. His literary production has arrived through Austrian and Bavarian monasteries, although it is not clear if his origin was French. Those who have studied the character point out the relationship of his writings with Regensburg and the abbey of Saint Jacques, whose church has some sculptures that represent the allegories of his commentary to the Song of Songs.

Among his works is "De gemma animae", written around 1130, which contains an allegorical vision of the liturgy and its practices. There he points out that "The temple.... symbolizes in real stones, the temple of glory built in the heavenly Jerusalem, in which the Church exults in constant peace".

Regarding the layout, he affirms that the churches are oriented to the east, "where the sun rises, because in them the Sun of justice is venerated, and in the east paradise, our homeland, is announced". To the four walls that support the building he affiliates them with the four gospels, next to which the Church must grow. The strong and hard stones signify strength in faith and works, while the mortar that binds them together denotes the union of the faithful through love.

To the columns he affiliates them with the bishops "on whom the structure of the Church rests, by the uprightness of their life". The beams are the secular princes who protect the institution. The tiles that prevent the passage of water and humidity are the "soldiers (milites) that protect the Church from pagans and enemies".

The pictorial decoration is approved for containing the examples, with three arguments: "firstly, because it is the writing of the laity; secondly, so that the house may be adorned with such decoration; thirdly, so that the life of our ancestors may be brought to life in the report ", arguments always present in the history of the Church among those who justified the presence of images, from the II Council of Nicea (787) to the Council of Trent (1563).

In light of Durando's arguments

The other great author who dealt in more detail with everything related to the symbology of the temple and its parts was Guielmus Durandi, known as Durando, a famous French canonist, born around 1230, in Puymisson, near Montpellier, and trained in Lyon and Bologna, being a disciple of the jurist Bernard of Parma. In 1265 he was appointed Auditor General of the Vatican Palace by Clement IV. He accompanied the pope to the Council of Lyon, and intervened, as bequest pontifical, in the problem of Ghibellines and Guelphs, defending the papal territories by diplomatic means and arms. In 1285 he was appointed bishop of Mende, and in 1291 he returned to Italy. He died in 1296 in Rome.

Among his numerous works, a treatise of great importance for the liturgy stands out, the Rationale seu enchiridion divinorum officiorum, written before 1286, where we find the richest elaboration of the whole liturgy, considered the most complete synthesis of what the Age average did in that subject, putting in relation the buildings and the furniture of the temples. The work consists of nine books and was published in the 15th century. Numerous editions were made in the 16th century, and it was not lacking in later centuries. Together with a 17th century work, "De antiquis Ecclesiae ritibus" ( Rouen, 1700-1702), by the Benedictine Edmond Martène (1654-1739), Durando's work is considered the main authority on medieval liturgies in the West.

Without following exactly the order that the text has and grouping thematically some of its contents, we will deal with some of the meanings given to each of the parts of the temple and other dependencies attached to it.

The church, its shape, orientation and dimensions

Regarding the shape, if it is cruciform it is to remember the Crucified One and if it is circular to signify the extension of the Church throughout the orb or because, coming from the circle of the orb, we reach the circle of the eternal crown. He also theorizes about the disposition of the building in relation to the human body, with the following symbolism in each of the parts: "the presbytery, or place where the altar is located, represents the head; the Wayside Cross, the arms and hands; the rest, what remains of the body. The sacrifice of the altar signifies the offering of the heart. The sanctuary or area of the altar is smaller than the choir and the choir is smaller than the central body, since the issue of virgins is smaller than that of those who keep continence and this, in turn, smaller than that of the married".

As for the orientation, it stipulates that the head should face the East. The length represents the "long-suffering by which he patiently endures adverse circumstances until he reaches the Fatherland" and the breadth "is the charity which, with the breadth proper to the mind, loves his friends in God and enemies for God's sake". The height "represents the hope in which future reward... the roof the charity that covers the multitude of sins". To the pavement he equates it with humility, the foundation of faith and the common people, with whose labors the Church is sustained.

Walls, walls, columns and spans

The walls would evoke the people who come to Christ from the four parts of the world. The four walls are related to the doctrine of the Gospels and the cardinal virtues. Its stones would be the faithful predestined to salvation, the largest, thickest and most polished alluding to the most perfect men. As for the cement "without which the wall cannot acquire stability, it is made of lime, sand and water; the lime is the ardent charity that is united to the sand, that is to say the earthly work; because true charity possesses the greatest application of all subject: for the widows, the elderly, the children, the weak... So that the lime and the earth are effective in the construction of the wall they are united by adding water, since the water is the Spirit...".

The columns recall the representation of the bishops and doctors who, with their doctrine, support the temple of God, thus explaining its different parts: "The bases of the columns are the apostolic bishops who support the building of the universal Church. The capitals are the minds of the bishops and doctors, for just as the members are governed by the head, so also our words and works are governed by the mind; the capitals are also the words of the Sacred Scripture, to whose meditation and observance we are subject".

The windows represent, for Durando, hospitality offered with joy and mercy with magnanimity. On the exterior side they should be smaller so as not to let frivolities pass through and on the interior side wider so as to perceive more easily the spiritual gifts, thus explaining their flaring. The grilles placed in front of the windows represent the prophets and other unknown doctors of the Church militant; in them, for the double precept of charity, sometimes, two columns appear, in imitation of the apostles sent to preach in pairs. 

The doors signify the obedience of which the Lord affirms: "If you would enter into life, keep the commandments". It is also Christ, which is why the Lord says in the Gospel: "I am the door".

Crypt, atrium, sacristy and tower

Durando refers to the crypts as "subway caves that are made in some churches representing hermits who practice a solitary life". He equates the atrium with Christ, who gives access to the heavenly Jerusalem, pointing out that the term derives from porta, for being open. He compares the sacristy to the womb of the Virgin in which Christ became flesh, because it holds sacred objects and vestments.

In the towers he evokes the preachers and prelates who aspire to the highest in a place of defense, arguing it with a text of the "Song of Songs", in which we read: "Your neck is like a tower of David built with defenses". He insists, in the parallelism with the preachers, when dealing with the rooster that tops the tower, pointing out that it is a vigilant animal in the deep night, that signals the hours with its song, wakes up those who sleep and before singing it stimulates itself with some flapping of wings. To each of these actions he attributes his symbol, for "the night is this world; those who sleep are the children of the night immersed in sin; the rooster are the preachers who preach with clarity and awaken the sleeping ones to turn away from the works of darkness, telling them; they announce that the light is coming when they preach the day of judgment and the future glory prudently, before preaching the virtues to others, they mortify their body by waking from the sleep of sin.... They too, like the rooster, place themselves against the wind when, with their refutations and arguments, they present a powerful resistance to the rebels so as not to be censured from fleeing before the wolf. The iron rod on which the rooster rests represents the upright speech of the preacher, who must not speak as a man, but in the name of God".

The cloister and its annexes

He gives special significance to the cloister and its pandas, which he compares to the heavenly paradise, in which everything will be possessed in community, because whoever has less in himself, will be happy to possess it in another, because God will be everything in everyone. For this reason the religious who live communally in a cloister, rise up to serve God and, forgetting earthly things, lead a communal life in everything. The variety of places of work and of offices, in the cloister, responds to the diversity of mansions and rewards in the heavenly kingdom, for the Lord says: "For in my Father's house are many mansions". Morally, the cloister is the contemplation of the soul that devotes itself to a life of recollection, turning away from carnal thoughts and devoting itself entirely to the meditation of heavenly goods: its four sides signify: contempt of self, contempt of the world, love of neighbor and love of God. Each of these sides has a row of columns. Self-contempt carries with it humiliation of the mind, affliction of the flesh, humility in speech, and the like. The basis of all the pillars is patience. The diversity of dependencies of the cloister represents the different virtues. The chapter is the secret of the heart; the dining room is the love of holy meditation; the pantry, the Sacred Scripture; the dormitory, the clean conscience; the chapel, the spotless life; the garden of trees and plants is the collection of virtues; the well of living waters is the watering of the gifts that mitigate thirst in this life and will quench it completely in the future.