THURSDAY
March 21, 2002
volume 13, no. 54

"Be Sober and Watch":
                  Vigilance in Symbols

A vivid, even horrific image of the damnation that could befall us if we do not heed God's Will is grotesque enough; to be reminded in image is a great deterrent to sin.

    "Unlike modern man, medieval man did not create their monsters to be the stuffed-animal companions or like extra-terrestrial friends for their children. Instead, their express purpose was to frighten, to startle man amid his everyday life. These fantastic beasts were destined to be a clear and constant reminder that the devil and original sin exist. Alongside the beauty and splendor of the magnificent cathedral, the serpent lurks. They were born from a mentality that understand the need for constant vigilance. Just as the brilliant stained glass window was the Gospel in crystal, the gargoyle elucidated in stone those grave words of St. Peter: 'Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour.'"
    Last week I wrote about the demons of the air and how we must be vigilant. This week, with Holy Week approaching it is a special time to be vigilant. Through the merits of Christ's Passion and Death on the Cross and His glorious Resurrection the price was paid for us to gain eternal salvation, something the evil spirits can never aspire to. Therefore they are ever more agitated and will stop at nothing to distract all those who seek to adhere to what Christ teaches. To remind us of the demons' power, in medieval Europe personifications of these evil spirits were built among the spires for a specific purpose. Indeed the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is an excellent example of this.

    Before explaining the reasons why wise men used these symbols of evil to educate the faithful, I'd like to comment about how they have been glorified today in a way unlike they were intended by wiser, holier men. Walking through one of those huge and terrible malls the other day, I noticed a shop filled with gargoyles, those strange misshapen creatures with their "astonishing and deformed appearance," as St. Bernard of Clairvaux described them. As a medievalist, my attention was caught. I entered the store and found a wide menagerie of creatures to place in your garden, set on your desk, adorn your fountain, and become your "little friend" or mascot.

    My first reaction was shock to find that these monstrous creatures were being sold as a kind of new pet for the home without any reaction of indignation. A quite different mentality is nourishing the celebration of these figures, a mentality that reflects a modern spirit opposed to the Catholic spirit that gave birth to these bizarre beasts. They seem to be everywhere - in video games, in comic books and in movies, as well as cuddly (hardly) toys. The sad facts are that they are everywhere and no one understands their true significance.

    The first purpose of these creatures for the medieval man was didactic - to teach. Unlike modern man, medieval man did not create their monsters to be the stuffed-animal companions or like extra-terrestrial friends for their children. Instead, their express purpose was to frighten, to startle man amid his everyday life. These fantastic beasts were destined to be a clear and constant reminder that the devil and original sin exist. Alongside the beauty and splendor of the magnificent cathedral, the serpent lurks. They were born from a mentality that understand the need for constant vigilance. Just as the brilliant stained glass window was the Gospel in crystal, the gargoyle elucidated in stone those grave words of St. Peter: "Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5: 8).

    This is also how the medieval artists would depict the torments of Hell, a topic modern Catholic artists avoid for fear of frightening children - and adults. How horrible and barbarian, they shudder, contemplating images like the famous Trinity College Apocalypse scene, where an angel thrusts the beast into the Hell-Mouth while vultures feed on the corpses of kings, captains and even priests and bishops. Such pictures encouraged viewers to think about the final consequences of their behavior. Hell, like sin, is a reality. And figures like the gargoyles serve to remind man of the battle he must wage while he fights the good fight on this earth, which is a battleground, not a paradise or utopia.

    Thus, the gargoyle reflects a mentality that understands God as the exemplary cause, the model of the universe. Hell itself was created by God, and can reflect His justice in punishing. So, in this sense, the ugly and horrible can be an expression of His just chastisement. It is interesting to consider that in the cathedral, in addition to the indisputable symbols of the goodness of God, we can observe the harmonic contrary of this as the expression of His justice. This expression of the contraries - justice and goodness - gives a broader understanding of Him.

    Inferior symbols can help us to understand superior symbols, and in this hierarchy of symbols we have a mirror of God. This creates a state of mind where we are constantly making relationships between all things, in which the model of everything is the Creator. This sane way of thinking, when it exists as it existed in the Middle Ages and promises to exist in the days ahead, is reflected in the art, architecture, fashions, manners and customs of a people. Modern man, like medieval man, needs transcendent values that become concrete in symbols. And these symbols, like the entertaining "spitting image" on the medieval cathedral, should serve to reflect God and to act as a constant reminder of the Creator.

Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D.

www.DailyCatholic.org

Your email:
Your name:
E-mail it  to:

For past columns by Dr. Horvat, see Archives of Echoes of True Catholicism



Thursday, March 21, 2002
volume 13, no. 54
TRUE ECHOES OF CATHOLICISM
www.DailyCatholic.org
Return to Today's Issue