Sunday, 19 February 2017

Why is the Lectern an Eagle?

From "The Pilot", 1968 comes this:

Some Church Customs Explained
By S.G. Thicknesse

Why is the Lectern an Eagle?

The lectern is an eagle (or sometimes a pelican) because the Christian Church, generally speaking, is no longer afraid of symbolism.

The eagle of the lectern, although it may well include memories of other even more ancient signs, is primarily the eagle which for centuries has connoted St. John the Evangelist.

Even in the early centuries, Christian symbols were in use, despite Tertullian's uncompromising opinion that, ' the law of God, in order to eradicate the material of idolatry, proclaims, “Thou shalt not make any idol adding also, “nor the likeness of anything “over the whole world hath it forbidden such arts to the servants of God.'

Christians from the beginning had made the sign of the cross, first in the air, and then on to walls and tombs and manuscripts. In time of persecution they had scored the catacombs in Rome with the secret symbol of the fish, an acrostic on the name of Jesus. Very early, too, they had taken and used symbolism from the Old and New Testaments to connote the writers of the four gospels.

In the earliest of the illustrations known, in the Lateran Church at Rome, in Milan, and in the church which Paulinus built at Nola, the four rivers of paradise of the Book of Genesis are used to denote St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke and St. John.

By t-he sixth century other symbols had tended to become even more favoured. The four beasts of the Revelation, and their prototypes from the vision of Ezekiel, had long been believed to be symbolic of the four Evangelists, and St. Jerome in the fourth century explained the special suitability of each.

St. Matthew, he said was denoted by the third beast which had the face of a man, because he began his gospel with the Lord's human genealogy. St. Mark was denoted by the first beast, which was like a lion, because he testified to the Lord's royal dignity, and at the end of his gospel to the terrible condemnation of unbelievers. St. Luke was denoted by the second beast which was like a calf or an ox, because he dwelt on priest-hood and the sacrifice of Christ.

The fourth beast, St. Jerome said, which was like a flying eagle, denoted St. John, because it was he who contemplated the Lord's divine nature. The idea of the eagle-or, more properly, the griffon, a form of vulture-was very deep and old in many parts of the ancient world. It appeared, for example, with the viper uraeus, as the usual ornament of a divine or royal head-dress in Egypt, and later on the standards of the Roman legions.

Strict Jews had been constantly on the alert against the inroads of strange beasts into Israel, especially of the ox, the lion, the serpent, and the eagle, the darling idols of the teeming pagan world by which they were surrounded. Even the twelve oxen on the molten sea with which Solomon embellished the temple, and the lions round about his throne, were objects of fierce suspicion. Later, a band of zealots threw down the image of a golden eagle which Herod the Great, the half-Jewish half-Arab king, had erected over the great gate of the Temple.

But by the fifth and six centuries after Christ these ancient terrors had been nearly tamed, and Christians with impunity decorated their churches and the furniture in them with lions' heads and doves, with peacocks, fishes and eagles.

It was natural, therefore, when special "lecterns" came to be made to hold the sacred books, which often became too heavy merely to prop on the ambo (the original " pulpit of the reader ") that they should often be decorated with symbols. It was also especially suitable that they should be decorated with the symbols of the Evangelists.

Though lecterns of many patterns made early in England-like the fine wooden one (c. 1450) in Ramsey Church, Huntingdon, or the great brass pelican in Norwich Cathedral-from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, an eagle lectern of wood or brass became very popular in this country.

Like that which Suger, Abbot of St. Denis, made in the middle of the twelfth century, these eagles held the book on their outspread wings, as does a fine early sixteenth-century lectern in St. Stephen's, St. Albans.

It was probably because the eagle could be so well adapted to the purpose of a lectern that it was the symbol of any of the other three, which became so common.

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