Monday, August 11, 2008

Chesterton's "A Defense of Heraldry," and the Knack of Thinking Symbolically

Shawn's very fine post on Ecclesiastical Heraldry touches on a subject that is very near and dear to myself, and has been since my childhood, when I wiled away hours pouring over an oversized edition of the color plates from Foxe-Davies. A study of heraldry--and particularly ecclesiastical heraldry, with all its rules and curiosities--would itself provide grist for many fascinating articles for this site, and perhaps I may put pen to virtual paper in the future, in so much as the topic relates to sacred art and architecture, and the ceremonial rights and responsibilities of the episcopate.

Heraldry in general, though, calls to my mind two interrelated ideas whose abandonment is one of the reasons we are in the liturgical and cultural mess we are in at present. I speak of both the strange idea that the dignity of the common man excludes any sort of magnificence or splendor--has no-one heard of the historic pomp of the extinct republics of Italy?-- and the larger problem that has bedeviled us in the English-speaking world, since the outbreak of iconoclasm at the time of the Reformation, that of the inability of modern man to think in symbolic terms. This is why both religious art is largely moribund, and also accounts for much of today's amazing lack of intellectual curiosity.

This essay, "A Defense of Heraldry," by G.K. Chesterton, brought to my attention by a reader, discusses both problems with considerable aplomb:

Now, there is something to be said for the peculiar influence of pictorial symbols on men's minds. All letters, we learn, were originally pictorial and heraldic: thus the letter A is the portrait of an ox, but the portrait is now reproduced in so impressionist a manner that but little of the rural atmosphere can be absorbed by contemplating it. But as long as some pictorial and poetic quality remains in the symbol, the constant use of it must do something for the aesthetic education of those employing it. Public-houses are now almost the only shops that use the ancient signs, and the mysterious attraction which they exercise may be (by the optimistic) explained in this manner. There are taverns with names so dreamlike and exquisite that even Sir Wilfrid Lawson might waver on the threshold for a moment, suffering the poet to struggle with the moralist. So it was with the heraldic images. It is impossible to believe that the red lion of Scotland acted upon those employing it merely as a naked convenience like a number or a letter; it is impossible to believe that the Kings of Scotland would have cheerfully accepted the substitute of a pig or a frog. There are, as we say, certain real advantages in pictorial symbols, and one of them is that everything that is pictorial suggests, without naming or defining. There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect. Men do not quarrel about the meaning of sunsets; they never dispute that the hawthorn says the best and wittiest thing about the spring.

Thus in the old aristocratic days there existed this vast pictorial symbolism of all the colours and degrees of aristocracy. When the great trumpet of equality was blown, almost immediately afterwards was made one of the greatest blunders in the history of mankind. For all this pride and vivacity, all these towering symbols and flamboyant colours, should have been extended to mankind. The tobacconist should have had a crest, and the cheesemonger a war-cry. The grocer who sold margarine as butter should have felt that there was a stain on the escutcheon of the Higginses. Instead of doing this, the democrats made the appalling mistake--a mistake at the root of the whole modern malady--of decreasing the human magnificence of the past instead of increasing it. They did not say, as they should have done, to the common citizen, 'You are as good as the Duke of Norfolk,' but used that meaner democratic formula, 'The Duke of Norfolk is no better than you are.'
We live in one of the most prosperous ages of mankind, if not the most prosperous. We have more comfort and ease than we know what to do with. Why can we not have a bit of magnificence, too?

Read the rest here. It's great fun if you keep an open mind.

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