Last Wednesday, November the 10th, we discussed symbolism.
Well, yes, and no. The Ohly reading was dense and difficult, attempting to outline the process with which different layers of meaning are attached to an animal, or indeed, to anything. We talked in metaphors about metaphors, to understand why humans make metaphors; and to understand the elaborate medieval symbolic tradition that Hugh worked within.
Our guide, in many ways, was the drawing of the dove in the Ohly text. One must, in no particular order, look at the picture of the dove in the center, think about how said animal is depicted, look at the colors, follow the rings and lines around the dove, think of how they symbolize eyes and perches and the wholeness of the picture’s meaning, read the words, think about what the entire text is signifying, and throughout, be reminded of how what you are looking at reminds you of other traditions and interpretations you know of beforehand, building on what you know and see and think what the artist is trying to convey. Sight is the highest organ of sense, and perceptual things that can be seen with the eye. But there is so much etched in memory and understanding that lets one go to the spiritual and the intellectual by looking at a picture even as one reads the words for a way to directly interpret it.
The picture of a dove cannot be read linearly, but dynamically, in any order, every part of it is part of the larger text. It is also designed as a conversation between Hugh and the reader, something that invites further and further discussion about the truths connected to a dove. It’s a game of making connections between sign and meaning and truth. In a very real sense, though, one is asked to look beyond the picture, both as text and as a picture, into the invisible and intangible world of meaning just behind it.
And how does symbolic meaning attach itself to a dove, or a hawk, or to anything else? It’s difficult to piece together the actual process of attaching meaning to a thing*. But one begins with the material form of a thing, and from there, delve below the material and actions of the thing to the truths beneath it. (One keeps using terms like “beneath,” “below,” “behind,” “within,” to try to visualize where the meaning of a thing is on the physical object. They’re useful, they convey that the material form obscures the symbolism and the truth. And one must sharpen one’s view and deepen one’s understanding in order to penetrate the material forms and get at the symbolic.)
Complicating everything is the indication that the dove does not just symbolize Hugh, but it is Hugh. And the picture of the dove is not a picture, but it is a dove! The hawk doesn’t just symbolize the nobility, and the dove the clergy. The dove is a self-portrait of Hugh. “Symbolize” isn’t enough, one may prefer term shadow and type, as a way of reflecting who he is. What’s different is that Hugh and Reynard aren’t just symbolized by a dove and hawk, but in some essence they are the men, not just markers for their classes and what they do and are in society. The book is a mirror with which they see themselves.
At the same time, one can, like Hugh, start from scripture and work backwards. Hugh begins every note in his aviary with a selection of the bible that says something about the birds. The selections are mostly psalms, the bible verses that a monk would sing every day. They’re the most foundational of his own texts, they’re in his mind more than anything else. Just as the monks sing together, in a corporate voice, his own“you” is potentially plural. It’s in the depth of his descriptive vocabulary as well. Instead of doves, he could start with describing the dove itself and then get to the significance, but he starts with the scripture, the meaning of the dove as an animals shown through scripture. Speaks to the fact that it’s more important than the animal.
He splits the dove into Noah, David, Jesus, as they’re the most important doves in scripture. And their 3 meanings are all facets of the same meaning behind the animal. They’re markers of the 3 periods of it all. Noah and god make a new covenant after the dove comes back. David reflects Christ. And Christ is the culmination of all that. The dove is working historically, and is itself the revelation of Christ in its three biblical appearances. Doves all have a spiritual meaning as well in their appearances.
This presumes, as Hugh no doubt would have done, that Christianity and god’s design is eternal and has existed from the very beginning of all time. As such, all creatures and things in nature mirror this very foundational reality. The Middle Ages surveyed plentitude of meaning, and God in nature. And nature doesn’t just cancel grace out but complements it. When we look through medieval understanding of nature or text, we’re looking at the same thing, same way the picture is the bird is the words about the bird.
And we can do the same work through the rest of the text, the color of the dove to the church, the right and left eye, and allegorically the same thing. It’s not all about the church and the contemplative life, but the mind and what it means. There exist different layers of signification, community, soul, church, individual, person. Other parts of the animal do the same thing, like the feet, etc.
Not just the dove is symbolizing something, but that because there are spiritual realities, they are manifested in creation, and in the bodies and animals we see now, as the truth of Christianity has been true for all time, including the old testament, and everything that has ever been and existed is part of a series of events that follow from the spiritual truth and existence of a creature that undergirds their existence.
Hugh indicates that this way of seeing birds is more than a tool to help the less educated and illiterate learn lessons about the bible and proper living. He suggest it’s easier to deal with than the same concepts without the underpinnings. Not that the simple folk aren’t doing it, just that they take different steps to get to the higher understanding than the more educated clergy and nobility. At least the moral teaching of the text would do so, even if hi picture would do so, then he’s satisfied that he has imparted a meaningful message to different strata of society as well as playing a game with meanings and metaphor.
- Emily B
*This becomes even more difficult when you consider different meanings of a thing across cultures. Of course, anything outside of Medieval European tradition is outside of our purview right now. However, if you like that sort of thing, you might like this little trifle, which compares the symbolism of colors across several cultures. http://www.flickr.com/photos/25541021@N00/4631991238/ “Evil,” “truce,” and “passion” are the only real universals.