Friday, July 01, 2011

A Leaf from the Book of Nature

I have written recently about the reading of the book of nature for symbolic meaning. I have recently moved to a new address in Massachussetts. The house is in a rural setting (in a place called Groton, if anyone is interested). From the kitchen window I can see a commercial apple orchard, and across the field I often see deer and wild birds. So, I thought, what can be read in this particular book of nature? Here are two examples: the first is a traditional one, and most obvious for my New England setting, the apple.

My dictionary of Saints, Signs and Symbols says that the apple is a symbol for sin when in the hand of Adam or Eve and of salvation when connected with Christ. There is speculation as to why the apple became associated with the forbidden fruit, mentioned in Genesis. My dictionary says that the Latin word for apple and for evil is the same: malum. Most of the paintings that I am aware of use it as a symbol for salvation in the context of either a painting of the Virgin and Child, in which the new Adam returns the apple to the new Eve; or in the Holy Family. In the selection of paintings here have included also one example of a painting by an anonymous 15th century artist called The Holy Kinship, which shows the extended family of Jesus. In this St Elizabeth hands an apple to the little boy. This might be symbolic, but as with all symbols I have to remember that the symbolism doesn’t rule out a more literal interpretation: a mother giving a treat to her little boy might simply be a charming indication of maternal love.

I have said before how if a tradition is to be a living tradition it should be developing re-applying its core principles so that it speaks of and to each successive generation. Accordingly, we should start to look for symbolism in the light of what we now know about the natural world today. So here’s a challenge to readers. Try to think of examples that could be developed. To my mind, this should have at its root a commonly believed truth about the thing itself so that the symbolism has a natural connection with reality. Also, if the object itself is attractive it will arouse an interest regardless of what it symbolizes. For example, contrary to the belief of late antiquity, the peacock’s flesh does decay and so it is not a good symbol for immortality in today’s world. Nevertheless, the sheer attractiveness of a peacock in mosaics and paintings makes me want to find a way of including it anyway! Next week, I will give you one thought that I have had.

Images from top: Gerard David, Flemish 15th century; cardinal bird with green foliage around; Stanzione, Italian 16th century; Rubens, Flemish 17th century; anonymous, German 15th century;

The Holy Kinship: St Elizabeth is bottom right.

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