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1. Orientation – Churches traditionally face east. This custom is pre-Christian. When Christians worship they face east and images expressing Christian hope are often deployed in the east window. The west side, however, was considered the best place for doom and often contains pictures of the last judgement. Older churches are usually built with a cruciform shape
2. Lychgates – A lychgate is a small gateway at the entrance to some English churchyards. They were designed to act as shelters for coffins and pallbearers before they came to church for the funeral. The name comes from lic , an old English word for corpse.
3. Churchyards – Churchyards are usually used as graveyards. Christians took on the Jewish tradition of burying the dead with their feet facing the rising sun as a sign of hope. It was believed that Jesus would return again to Jerusalem, so Christians living west of Israel wanted to face east so they were the right way for his return.
4. Gargoyles – These are highly decorated, grotesque, drainage pipes although they are sometimes installed for their own sake. Some interpretations say that they are symbolic of scaring away the devil, or they are a contrast between the ‘bedevilled’ world outside and the sanctuary within. There are, however, arguments which suggest that they were simply a way for a local carver to show off his fabulous work as the carvings are rarely very holy.
5. Porches and doors – Church porches in the past were sometimes used for secular community functions. This could be a legally binding contract being sworn at an altar in the porch. In the middle ages couples about to be married were met at the porch and asked for their consent before proceeding inside. Doorways often feature references to Jesus such as sculptures of him sitting in majesty. Symbols such as a lamb or the crucifixion are popular images.
6. Stoups and fonts – A stoup is a bowl, sometimes recessed into the wall, by the entrance. It contains holy water and is used by a worshipper to dip their fingers and cross themselves. It is especially found in Roman Catholic churches but can still be seen in older Anglican buildings. The symbolism goes back to the Jewish custom of washing before entering a holy place.
A font is used for baptism. It is placed near the back of a church and is representative of the Christian journey through life towards God i.e. moving from the back to the front of the church. They often contain lids, some of which will be elaborate, in order to protect the holy water from dirt. Decoration will often be fairly plain, but can represent the journey of life.
7. Nave, columns and arches – The nave is the main part of the church where the congregation sits for worship. It comes from the Latin word navis meaning ship. The association of the church with a ship indicates the priest and the people travelling together towards God. Originally there would have been no seats. After the reformation it was recognised that the sermon was important. As these were often very long, pews began to be installed so the congregation could rest their weary legs.
The nave is often flanked by columns which draw the eye to the altar. They first represented trees, therefore being a sacred grove in which people worshipped. Later they represented human figures, the tops of the columns being like arms raised towards God. Different styles of column represent different periods of time.
Arches can be symbolically seen as being hands clasped in prayer or arms thrown in worship to God. Some arches are free standing, like triumphal arches. They represent the triumph of Jesus.
8. Ceilings and domes – The church is seen as a symbol of Heaven so they are not always seen as an enclosed building. Ceiling decoration can include paintings and roof bosses. Painting would be of biblical scenes and religious figures. The boss marks the point where pillars or decorations meet and will often be highly decorated and represent biblical or other religious scenes. A rounded dome is common in the Eastern Church and represents heaven on top of a walled box representing the earth.
9. Lecterns and Pulpits – The lectern is where the Bible rests for reading during the service. It will usually be in the shape of an eagle. The symbolism of this is that an eagle looks unflinchingly into the sun in the same way the words of the Bible are an unflinching revelation of God. It has also been said that as an eagle travels the world, so do the words of God.
Pulpits are where the sermon is delivered. They date from the fourteenth century. Images of the four evangelists are often carved into pulpits as their words are the focus for teaching.
10. Screens – Screens are used to divide the nave from the chancel. They are particularly popular in eastern churches where they will be covered with icons. In western churches they are called rood screens. Rood in Anglo Saxon means ‘cross’ so the rood screen may be topped with a cross. They may have images or statues of the Virgin Mary and St John who were present at the crucifixion. Their purpose was to keep people away from the sanctuary which was regarded as being a more holy part of the church. Many rood screens were destroyed at the reformation but evidence of their presence can still be seen.
11. Altar and tabernacle – The altar is at the heart of Christian worship. At the time of Jesus an altar was used for animal sacrifice as an atonement for sin. Jesus is regarded as having made the ultimate sacrifice and is often described as being a sacrificial lamb; hence the name ‘altar’. It is the table used for the Holy Communion service. Traditionally it would be placed behind the rood screen under the east window. Now many have been moved nearer to the congregation in the nave.
The tabernacle contains the reserved sacrament (bread and wine that has been blessed). A candle shows that the reserved sacrament is present.
Crosses, crucifixes and halos – The cross is the most important Christian symbol. They can represent sacrifice and death as well as love and hope.
The stations of the cross represent the last journey of Jesus towards his death. The (ususally)14 pictures are used by individual Christians for meditation.
Halos surround the head of a figure and represent holiness and spiritual power. In eastern churches they represent power rather than holiness so images of Satan can also contain halos.
The empty cross represents the instrument of torture defeated where the victim has walked away. It is an image of God’s power and hope. Some crucifixes are of Jesus’ triumph as they see Jesus dressed and wearing a halo, his hand in a sign of blessing. A traditional crucifix of Jesus’ suffering shows him with his head to the side just as he died. He is wearing a crown of thorns and is nailed to give a devotional pose. The anchor cross is a symbol of hope as the anchor held ships safely in place.
2. Animals and Birds – When decorating churches many artists used images from the natural world to represent Christian teaching.
The monkey was thought to be an animal with human desires so became known as a symbol of immoral self-indulgence, greed, cunning and lust. The donkey is a humble working animal so is a symbol of humility
The lamb represents Jesus as he is often described as the Lamb of God. The lamb will often be surrounded by a halo to represent holiness. Jesus is often shown as a shepherd with sheep; the sheep representing the followers of Jesus.
The snake represents the Devil or sin. The snake wrapped around the cross represents the triumph of Jesus over sin. The dragon is also a symbol of evil. It is sometimes depicted with St George and sometimes with the Archangel St Michael who is believed to have defeated the Devil.
The Winged Man represents St Matthew The Lion is a symbol of St Mark. Lions symbolise strength and majesty and therefore represent Jesus. The Eagle is a symbol of St John. It became known as a symbol of the resurrection The Bull or Ox is a symbol of St Luke. The Ox was present at the nativity. Symbols of the Evangelists
3. Plants – These are often used by artists to illustrate Christian teaching. Artists would portray plants in the way they are used in the Bible or would use characteristics of particular plants to make an analogy between them and parts of Christian teaching.
Vines in the Old Testament are a symbol of abundance. When seen with wheat they represent the Eucharist. In John, Jesus says ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’ so the vine represents Jesus. The rose symbolises purity and the Virgin Mary. When shown with Mary the roses have no thorns because she is believed to be without sin.