For the early Christians, the fish sign was one of the most important symbols of faith. Still familiar today, its origins and meaning are straightforward; the Greek word for fish is ‘icthus’ which incorporates the initial letters of five Greek words which describe the character of Christ (Iēsous Christos Theou Huios Sōtēr - Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour).

Some symbols are easily explained; some are cloaked in mystery, and visitors to the Church of the Holy Trinity in Long Melford will come across an example. This grand 15th century ‘wool church’ contains some beautiful medieval stained glass. One of the most curious features is a small roundel depicting three hares chasing each other in a circle; even curiouser, each ear is shared by two of the hares, so only three ears are visible.

I’d never seen this symbol until we visited the church but have learned that similar designs exist in medieval churches around Europe, including many in Devon. I was intrigued to learn that an apparently pagan symbol should appear in so many churches and at so many sacred sites. The mystery deepens with the knowledge that it’s also been adopted by other faiths; the link to Christianity is that it symbolises the Trinity.

Our own dear Hertford URC can’t match Long Melford’s antiquity but it too houses an interesting decorative feature; among the carvings on the pulpit there’s a pelican! More erudite readers may be nodding knowingly, but it was new to me. It appears that the pelican has been a Christian symbol since the 12th century. In legend, it pecks at its breast to feed its young with its own blood when food is scarce – and so it symbolises unselfish love, charity and sacrifice.

In my career I was lucky enough to travel around Europe and visited Milan several times. Once, having a couple of hours to spare, I decided to take a look at Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’. I made my way to its location - Santa Marie Dell Grazie - and was deflated by a sign to the effect that the church was closed; I would not get to see the painting! To the left of the church’s façade was another sign, in front of a small building, reading simply: ‘Art Gallery’ - a classic understatement as I would soon discover.

Passing through a series of airlocks I emerged into this ‘gallery’ which was, as perceptive readers will have guessed, the Friars’ old refectory, across the end wall of which Leonardo had painted his masterpiece. I was transfixed; my casual, slightly disappointed demeanour transformed. The painting had begun to decay almost before it was completed and has been in a perpetual state of restoration ever since. But Leonardo’s enduring genius for composition, scale and perspective is such that the viewer is drawn into the great drama which is unfolding; stand in the middle of the refectory, raise your view to meet Christ’s eyes and you are ‘present’ at the Last Supper. The Dominican monks who dined there were effectively seated with the thirteen.

Was theirs, half a millennium ago, and mine, a truly spiritual experience? It felt like it, but of course it’s just a painting. Just as the pelican is simply a carving; the three hares merely a design in stained glass. The cross, the dove, the great cathedrals, the amazing ceiling of the Cistine Chapel, all those symbols are not God, but works of man. But they can help get us closer to knowing His presence as we contemplate what has been divinely inspired or steeped in centuries of belief and tradition.

 

Mike Excell

Elder at Hertford