Saturday, 15 March 2008

Monstrous Symbols

All, all in Life’s but repetition,
Fancy sole is new in ev’ry stage.
What in past days nowhere came to vision,
That alone doth never age!

Johann Friedrich Christoph von Schiller

“What is the meaning of those absurd monstrosities, that astounding, amorphous plethora of form, that formal opulence of shapelessness standing in front of the eyes of studious monks in the cloisters? What are those obscene apes doing there? Those savage lions? Those centaurs and half-men? The striped tigers? And the fighting warriors? And the horn-blowing huntsmen? There we can see many bodies with one head and, conversely, many heads on a single body, here a quadruped with a serpent’s tail, over there a fish with a quadruped’s tail. Over there a beast, horse in front and goat behind, and again, a horned beast with a horse’s rump. Everywhere is such a rich and amazing profusion of different shapes, that one would sooner learn from the statues than contemplate the commandments of God…”

Saint Bernard, founder and abbot of the twelfth-century monastery of Clairvaux, was the iconoclast who thundered out this invective in an open letter to Abbot William of Cluny. Bernard was a leader of the strict, puristic reformed order set against the newly rich disciples of older reformers; he was a man of intense and personal mysticism, opposed to external show, crusading against waste of money on superfluous ostentation. Nevertheless, he was astute enough to allow instructive images of the benefit of lay people. Those monsters adorned the facades of Romanesque churches, crawled around the capitals of the pillars inside and gazed down from the timbered roofs. Three roads – antiquity, the Bible, and Physiologus – had converged and intertwined, bringing more than the unicorn into the European experience. In the West, with its not overly mature, not too deeply penetrated Christian tradition, where certainly many a pagan lay barely skindeep, they collided with relics of another world. This in fact produced a medley from which it was scarcely possible to unravel the original components, and in which concrete Christian tenets seemed in any case to be thoroughly lost. The uncivilized images appeared only to interfere with the desire of the flowering mysticism for direct communion of the soul with God. And yet those images became a gateway to such an encounter…

Unicorn Myth and Reality
Rudiger Robert Beer
Ash & Grant Ltd

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