The main portal of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine consists of two side by side doors. Above is the tympanum, composed of a relief sculpture in limestone. The sculpture represents a vision of Saint Dominic, accepting a book from Saint Paul and a staff from Saint Peter. Above this is a panel of eight symbolic medallions, each one rich in theological meaning.
Over the weekend, I took a crash course in Christian symbolism in an attempt to identify the meaning of the eight medallions. My studies began Friday at The Institute for Sacred Architecture and a telephone call to the firm of Duncan G. Stroik. A kind soul answered the phone and listened to my “I’m a freelance writer” drill.
Could she recommend any literature on Christian symbolism?
She put me on hold for several minutes. When she returned, she recommended two books written in the 1930’s, both available digitally. I spent most of Saturday evening enlightening myself to the meaning of the Chi Rho, the bursting pomegranate, and the descending dove.
My research took me to the Basilica on Sunday morning, following an overnight drop of late winter snow. With my binoculars handy, I spied a bounty of sculptured symbols. Church goers leaving the Latin Mass looked at me curiously and I wondered if they knew such an abundance of artistic and Biblical richness was available to them.
Here is a picture taken within the main doorway, looking towards the sky and capturing two carved faces. There are twelve of these carvings and I’m inclined to say to say it’s the Twelve Apostles, but I have not positively confirmed each face.
(That is snow coming off the building in the breeze.)
There are many flowers affixed to the building, in a multitude of patterns and arrangement. I also found fish, roosters, daggers, feathers and scrolls. Alpha and Omega, too. On the Bartlett Street side of the building are flying creatures from the book of Revelation. What an array it is.
These symbols are not unique to the Basilica or even to Christianity itself. But in Christianity, they are an aid to devotion. Christian’s don’t worship symbols; no, they shouldn’t.
I am always amazed at how much there is to know and learn and appreciate. Even on the darkest days, when I think I am a stranger in a strange land, I notice a well-designed chimney or an architectural ornament on the humblest of houses here in Lisbon Falls and it brightens my spirits. I wish everyone felt this way.
The time for writing of stone anchors of the soul comes to an end. It’s time to think of spring and planting and sunflowers. I will enjoy sunflowers more this summer because I now know they have a symbolic meaning. Sister Justina Knapp, M.A., OSB, writes in Christian Symbols and How to Use Them, “The sunflower is suitable as a symbol of religious obedience. In the morning at the first sign of dawn it raises its lovely head to greet the rising sun. All day long it turns constantly facing the sun in the heavens. At evening it bows its head and goes to rest thus the religious person raises his heart to God with the dawn, lives in His presence through the day, and at evening retires to rest in God.”
What a lovely devotion.