I was arrested recently, not by the police, but by the postage stamp on an old letter. It was from Ireland, nearly half a century ago; from an Ireland much unlike the present Ireland. The stamp was irrefutably Catholic, yet could be quickly mistaken for a nice piece of art.
It depicted Saint Luke, in the symbol of a winged ox; a photogravure pastiche of this symbol, lifted from the (8th-century) Lichfield Gospels – a little older than the Book of Kells.
The composition and framing of this (very “Celtic-looking”) figure on a 20-pence stamp, and its coloring, were remarkable. A stamp collector in childhood, my papa had taught me to appreciate fine details, including acts of graphic genius that generally go unsigned.
Yet even to know something of the provenance of the image, cuts through the world of signatures. One is transported, in an instant, into another world, in which the winged ox can be immediately recognized for what it is; and all mediation falls away.
This is one of the excitements I find in early Christian art, from many cultures. It is something I once found in contemporary Egypt, where the Copts in Cairo’s “Garbage City” were carving sculpture into the limestone cliffs along the south edge of their slum. The sense of date, of chronology, suddenly passed away. I was back in the first centuries.
Now, Egypt and Ireland make a natural pair. One might say that Christianity invaded Western Europe, from Egypt, through Ireland. In both countries, the mystical capacity to grasp the disembodied, and somehow embody it, was “advanced.”
I am writing about things that moderns can’t do, not because of some physical limitation, but because we have lost the ability to see, directly. When we use the word “vision” we distantly remember this ability, yet the word itself is something blocking our view. For the vision was of something complete (“perfect”), in itself.
We think of the image as representing something, and true enough, it nominally does this. That the winged ox is a symbol of Saint Luke is a factoid any art historian could (until recently) instantly snap off.
It is a glib remark, which pushes the truth another step away, like kicking a stone when you meant to lift it. One makes and breaks contact in a single stroke.
To our modern sensibility, the symbol should mean something: A=B, or X=Y. It is “standing in” for something else. It therefore cannot be that other thing.
This is important, because it is at the root of Transubstantiation, a Catholic concept that hardly anyone understands, except the simplest people. To the modern mind, bread = body, and wine = blood. This is a Protestant way of looking at it, which no one who speaks English can easily escape. It is “analytical.”
Whereas, the good priest asserts that the bread IS His body, and the wine IS His blood. He refuses to kick that any farther down the road.
To my eyes, which were not expecting it, suddenly that winged ox was not LIKE Saint Luke; it was Saint Luke, himself. It did not look like an apostle, but like a cow; anyone could see that. But, “like” is meaningless in the presence of an IS.
Or this, anyway, was my response to this old postage stamp, which was pretty, even striking, but much more than that. Little details, such as who wrote the letter, and why it was written, and the fact that the writer is now dead, occupied the periphery of this image. But they were timely, and the image was not.
Through what we call Western Art, or if it is now necessary to reduce this to Western Religious Art, the figures and symbols of the Evangelists remain. To the medieval or earlier imagination, they were historical figures, as they are for us, and characters in a narrative, of sorts. But they are historical figures on a unique plane.
We smile at the quaintness of the later medieval landscapes, glimpsed behind the Biblical figures. What anachronism! A modern scholar could set the painter straight, on his period errors in costumery, and so forth. The “original” scene could have been nothing like that. Granted, the painter is a creature of his time – a time of “ignorance” – but even then he could have done a better job of thinking the scene through.
Whereas, the painter responds, “What are you talking about?”
Here I am speaking of a painter whom one has met through a wormhole in time. Suppose that we have traveled back a few centuries to meet him.
It turns out, he isn’t quite so obtuse as we expected. For once provided with a translation, he knows what a “story” is. And he knows that the Bible is full of stories; and that they happened at another time. But our translation will pass over what we mean by “a story.”
To us, “stories” are discontinuous with facts. For if it is a “true story,” then, it isn’t really a story. We moderns are on our guard against “myth.” We are like customs officers, looking through the baggage for something a visitor may be trying to smuggle in. We allow only true stories.
However, this “factitious” bias misses the whole point.
The winged ox is not trying to look like Saint Luke, in order to fool anyone. Nor is it any kind of abstraction, like a symbol in math. It comes to us as the person himself. It does not even crawl out of a wormhole in time. It is just there.
And that is a terrible problem for the Catholic Church. She is not “just there” anymore. Her faith has been reduced to arguments with the pagans. It is very hard for her to proclaim anything, to an age of fact-checkers. For, if I might comically quote a famous politician, it all depends on “what IS is.”