Fundamentals of Symbolism 

As understood from a traditional Roman Catholic perspective **

By Hamilton Reed Armstrong


Man's interest in symbols, it would appear, is as old as his existence. Hieroglyphs and the various alphabets of man, for example, are visual signs or conventional symbols that convey meaning by evoking words, which in turn evoke objects, events and ideas. Musical and mathematical notations are symbols that convey specific meaning as well. There are also conventional symbols, invented by man, such as the dove of peace, the anchor of hope or the flags of nations that may become universal through verbal explanation. Again there are secret symbols which men use to convey allegiance to a certain ideology that they wish to hide from the profane. It is supposed that the "fish" drawings done by early Christians in the Catacombs of Rome were such sort of symbol. This essay is not concerned with  any of these. There is, according to psychologists, yet another set of symbols that deal with man's fundamental view of himself, the cosmos, and God. 1

 These symbols come to the surface in the varying poetic insights and myths of mankind. Thus even such a traditional orthodox scholar as Father Martin C. Darcy S.J. in his book, The Meaning and Matter of History, recognized that poetic insight and myth ought not to be dismissed. He affirmed that myths were not mere fiction but more like reality as lived through the imagination. He stated that "... It (myth) is a manner of describing what lies behind the dry facts as noted by the perceiving mind, and it is the recurrent way in all civilizations for giving expression to the innate hopes and desires of man, and his sense of the past. Poetry and myth, therefore, are enlisted by the philosopher of history to describe the truth he is seeking. Perhaps even more pertinent to the philosopher of history is the view now widely held that the human experience can be presented through types of symbols and images. There is a mysterious analogy which runs through the varying levels of human experience, of which the simplest examples are 'left and right', high and low', 'up and down'. Material symbols serve for spiritual realities, and so the psychologists tell us, there are fundamental symbols which contain a wealth of meaning, so that when they appear in religious or poetic form in other civilizations the historian is initiated into the ideas and in to the ritual of behavior of the people who use them." 2

 It is difficult to say with certitude how these symbols function, but it would appear that they operate at an unconscious, or pre-rational level. However they work, such pioneering authorities, as Edward Sapir, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, and Claude Lévi-Strauss believe that by identifying these visual patterns one may obtain valuable insights into the lives of both individuals and cultures. While these authors agree upon the existence of these spatial structures, their conclusions regarding them are often conflictive and confuse more than clarify their true meaning. Without delving to deeply into any erroneous conclusions, I should like to reassemble the known facts into a cohesive overview that will show the similarities and, most importantly, differences between the spatial symbols of Christianity, especially Catholicism, and all other belief systems. Given the reigning confusion, this appears at first glance to be a daunting task, but as Claude Lévi-Strauss rightly pointed out, " The symbols of man are infinite in their complexity, but simple in their rules." 3

It should be stated from the beginning that these rules, referred to by Lévi-Strauss, govern archetypal expressions of the "self," its individuation, and reciprocity and are not to be confused with the symbolic theories of Sigmund Freud which deal with erotic desire and repression.4

According to J.A. Laponce of the University of British Columbia, the dot or the point is the grapheme of the first order for all men. It establishes identity. The line as the point's extension in space follows this fundamental mark. According to Laponce, developing these notations leads to the idea of lines that separate, direct, or establish a boundary. 5 The finger painting, to the left, by a five year old boy serves as an example of this proto symbol. In it we see the primordial dot, painted in jewel like red, surrounded by circles emanating outward. The dot signifies the "self", or organizing principle of this individual child while the rings establish the distinct layers of protection and containment. 6 Whereas it may be presumed that the child had no conscious intention of manifesting his psychic individuality in producing this image, the same configuration is seen, consciously depicted in the 1957 painting by Afred Jensens, on the right. This picture is titled, "My Oneness Universal Color" and subtitled "Self Identity" - Self Integration."

Historically, this configuration, the dot surrounded by one or more circles, would indeed appear to be the most ancient and perennial of all human symbols. It appears as a recurring motif in the monuments of all civilizations. The image to the left is of one of many Neolithic (3000 BC) cult symbols unearthed in Northern Spain. Shown below are similar configurations to be found elsewhere around the world. While there are no written records as to the exact meaning of the ancient European, American or Australian symbolic representations, in the East, this symbol is amply explained. It is the classic Mandala, a circle or circles surrounding a point or dot known as the Bindu which represents the point of union between the individual self and the divine self.7



Australian Aboriginal

North America Indian (California)

Indian (Buddhist)

Indian (Hindu)

Tibetan (Tantric)


The phenomenon represented by the Mandala, ie., the union of the individual consciousness with the divine reality at the core of its being, is fundamental to Oriental philosophy, especially the Vedanta that evolved from the ancient Upanishads. The Vedanta teaches: "1 ) that man's real nature is divine. If, in this universe, there is any underlying Reality, a Godhead, then the Godhead must be omnipresent, If the Godhead is omnipresent, it must be within each one of us and within every creature and object. Therefore man in his true nature is God. 2 ) That it is the aim of man's life on earth to unfold and manifest his Godhead, which is eternally existent within him. But hidden." 8


Just as early man's intuitive awareness of the sacred nature of life and all reality may have led to an identification of his own consciousness with that of some intuited divine source, there has also existed, along with this conceptual unity, a sense of duality. This duality is largely defined in terms of male and female principles and attributes. In the East it comes down to us in written form through the Tao-te Ching (way of nature) of the legendary master Lau-Tzù, and in the West via the Pythagorian Table of Opposites passed down through Aristotle. . See Appendix 1

Tao-te Ching

Yang - ----Yin

Male -- --Female

Active ----Passive

Light ------Dark

Creative --Receptive

Time------ Space

Spirit------ Nature

Good ------Evil


Table of opposites


Right --------Left

Light-------- Dark

Limited -----Unlimited

Rest-------- Motion

Straight---- Curved

Good-------- Evil



 The earliest depictions of this Male -Female polarity , for which we have no written explanation, seem to have obvious generative and gender connotations The prehistoric "Crick stones" from Great Britain and the "Grand Alix" from Guatemala shown below are clearly based on male and female sexual organs, while the reconstructed view of the Avesbury circle, again in Great Britain and "Tara" mound in Ireland, present the dual principles more stylistically (the small circle with the dot or mound being male and the small circle with an even smaller circle being female). It is thus a generally held hypothesis that the cyclical regeneration of nature influenced primitive man producing an awe of sexuality, and the birth, growth, death, and rebirth cycle that he observed around him. Based on such figurines as the "Willendorf Venus, (to the right) "Marija Gimbutas in her 1974 study The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe proposed that, before the proto-Indo-European herdsmen arrived with their patriarchal gods, the Neolithic farming peoples of Europe did indeed base their religion on "Mother Earth" with the concomitant cyclical and sexual connotations. The emphasis on the enlarged belly and breasts of this figurine coupled with the lack of a face - imago dei - or rational guiding principle, would reinforce this hypothesis. The Magna Mater (Earth Mother) oriented fertility, or "pagan" religion remained vital as an underground current in Western culture via the various Dionesiac cults and mystery religions right up, via Romanticism, to modern times. 9

"Crick stones"

"Grand Alix"


"Tara" mound



While this polarity or division may be based on observed sexual differentiation and fertility or, as proposed by Claud Lévi-Strauss, an invented binary framework by which the individual or group can make choices as to what is desirable or undesirable, the ubiquitous manifestation of the same symbols leads to the premise that they likely have a meaning of universal dimensions. This is even more apparent when they appear in a sublimated form. For example, when they are shown as either two antagonistic forces represented as snakes or dragons placed left and right in eternal battle for dominance, (as seen in the Native American shield on the left or the Chinese drumhead on the right) or as the union of these two opposing forces as in the Caduceus. 10

The Caduceus is among the oldest symbols of man, going back to at least to Sumerian times. The example at the left is taken from the sacrificial cup of King Gudea of Lagesh (c.2600 BC). It is seen depicted at the entrance of ancient Hindu temples and is the basis of Kundelini, Serpent force Yoga. It is the attribute of the Greco -Roman god Hermes/Mercury and is, of course used as the symbol of modern day medical practice. In all of these instances it is a symbol of fusion of opposites involved in the process of healing and wholeness.

Another example of unification of opposites is the classic T'ai chi image of equal black and white yin - yang hemispheres separated by a sine curve within a circle. Within the black and white hemispheres is a dot of the opposing color. According to the prevailing wisdom these opposite markings designate the inclusion of a small part of each of the opposing forces included in its counterpart. One might well counter that this symbolic statement might refer to the attraction of one for the other. The T'ai-chi image is ubiquitous throughout the East and has re-emerged in the West as a fundamental "New Age" symbol. It represents the embodiment of the ancient notion of the Tao that both the Yin and the Yang are emanations of the undivided One to be ultimately bound together in harmony with the leveling of all distinctions in the end. 11



 Yet another symbolic manifestation of the fusion of opposites is the depiction of two or more intertwined triangles within the same enclosed circle. This symbol, the hexagram, known to many as the "Seal of Solomon" or "Magen David" is, once again, of most ancient origin. The authoritative Jewish Scholar Gersholm Scholem points out that this symbol was used, "From as early as the bronze age -possibly as an ornament and possibly as a magic sign - in many civilizations and in regions as far apart as Mesopotamia and Britain." It is found as a sacred symbol in temples from Mayan ruins in Mexico and Guatemala to Nepal and Tibet. This symbol, it should be noted, had no religious significance in ancient Israel although, again according to Gershom Scholem, the Talmud recounts the legend that the hexagram was inscribed at some period in Solomon's ring or seal as a sign of his dominion over the demons. (Git. 68a-b) 12 The actual use of the Hexagram in the Jewish community dates to the Middle Ages when it entered in as a sign of the then spreading Kabbalistic mystical movement. This symbol, the intertwining of the two triangles, according to J.E. Cirlot, is a graphic a depiction of the mingling of fire(m) and water(f) in the human soul.13 In the esoteric world of Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism, the union of the two triangles is seen as the symbolic sexual union of the divine male, Siva and the divine female sakti cosmic principles. This concept of cosmic union flows into the mystical Jewish Kabbbala where it is referred to as Zivug ha Kadosh, the sacred coupling between the male and female attributes of God.14 Combining the various interpretations, the common denominator is that the visual statement of the hexagram, or "seal of Solomon" refers to a conjunction of opposites, a marriage of heavenly (above) and earthly (below) spirits in both the individual and the cosmos.

We have seen thus far that the symbols, - the dot, the circle or circles, the Mandala, the two serpents, the T'ai-chi, and the hexagram, are among the most fundamental graphic images used by man. Are there any overall conclusions to be drawn from them regarding the human condition? First off, the use of the dot and circle as a symbol of identity shows that reflective self-awareness is present in all human beings from early childhood in all cultures and all locations. No other species uses this or, for that matter, any other symbolic statement of identity. Second, The use of the same symbol, the dot and circle to depict a unique divine presence shows the universal belief in such a being or presence. Third, Virtually all cultures view reality in a dyadic fashion based on an overall male-female polarity. Fourth, symbolic representations such as serpents or dragons in opposition demonstrate a universal awareness of antagonistic or complementary elements in the cosmos that in some way are related to a quadratic relationship between male and female (right and left) and the heavens and earth (up and down). Fifth, There appear in all ancient cultures symbolic manifestations of a desire to resolve these opposites and that the Caduceus, the T'ai-chi, and the hexagram are manifestations of this universal desire. As Dostoevsky mused in "The Grand Inquisitor": "This craving for a community of worship...and for a universal unity the misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time."

 The overall commonality of symbolic structures among all peoples has, indeed, led many writers on the subject of symbolism, e.g., Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell, among a host of others, to posit the theory that all the religions of man are variations of the same primal aspirations to identity, transcendence and wholeness. While man's aspirations appear symbolically similar, their resolution is another matter. The Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, uses a parallel symbolic system, raised however, to higher level by the revelation of a God who is wholly other. [Deus] est re et essentia mundo distinctus, et super omnia quae praeter ipssum sunt ineffabiliter excelsus - [God] is essentially a reality other than the world and ineffably superior to all that possibly could be.15 This, as we shall see, provides a unique vision of man and his destiny with its own symbolic structures, especially within the artworks of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy,

Before looking at the continuation and change to these basic symbols by revealed religion, there is one more ubiquitous symbol to be discussed, the Labyrinth.

The labyrinth or spiral maze is as old and ubiquitous as any of the above mentioned symbols. At the left is a prehistoric British "turf Maze." At the right, are three intertwining spirals on the wall of the Neolithic gravesite at New Grange, Ireland.16 There are vestiges of these symbolic figures found throughout Great Britain and Europe as well as North and South America. According to Jung, it is a symbol both of the unconscious and the inward journey, as well as the underworld. As the latter, it is mentioned in Virgil's, Aenead as inscribed at the gateway to Hades. The best known description of a labyrinth or maze, however, with a clear insight into its meaning, is found in the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. According to the legend invented by the Attic Greeks, Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos of Crete, under a spell, became enamored of a huge black bull sent as a gift by Poseidon, Lord of the deep. The result of this unnatural lust was the Minotaur, a loathsome and furious beast with a bulls head and human body. So loathsome was the beast, in fact, that it had to be hidden away in a special place from which there could be no escape. This was, of course, the Cretan Labyrinth. The Greeks knew of the ruins of Crete and knew of the affinity for bulls and the loose morals of the Cretans as depicted in the artwork left behind of this ruined civilization that vanished without trace. 17

The mytho-poetic or imaginative mind, of these early Greeks with their incipient awakening of discursive reason, somehow grasped that what lay at the center of the labyrinth or inward journey was to be feared. They intuitively understood that the inner drives of sex and violence was the lair of the beast and that only with intelligence, valor, and pure love could one escape it in tact. Thus the story of Theseus, the noble Athenian, with the unselfish aid of Ariadne, King Minos Daughter, overcame the Minotaur and escaped with his life. The Medieval builders of the Christian Middle Ages understood the symbolism as well. Circular labyrinths or mazes were traced on the floors of the great cathedrals. No, the faithful did not walk to the center of these mazes to gain insights and mystic experiences as some of our modern priests and priestesses avow. The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral was placed over the ancient shrine to the earth goddess Belthane and beneath the West Rose window dedicated to Mary the Mother of God. The same window that Henry Adams had labeled in his Mount Saint Michel and Chartres, , "Our Lady's promise of Salvation." At the center of the labyrinth at Chartres there once was a stone with an inscription that read, "This stone represents the Cretan's Labyrinth. Those who enter cannot leave unless they be helped, like Theseus by Ariadne's thread." It was obvious to the medieval Catholic mind that constructed this configuration, that to escape death, the demon and doom at the center, one needed the help of Mary. It should also be noted that priests would assign as a penance after confession of ones sins that the penitent crawl on his knees out from the center of a labyrinth while reciting certain prayers. Here we see the same symbol, the labyrinth, used by both pagan and Christian alike. The symbol itself is universal, but the meaning is reversed. For the pagan and New Ager alike, one must seek experience at the mystic center, yet for the Christian one must seek the "other" outside of the maze and ones self.


The primordial symbol of revealed religion that can be traced to its origins in the Hebrew Bible is the twin pillars Jachin and Boaz that stood on the porch of Solomon's Temple. Jachin is seen on the left and Boaz to the right of the illustration. However, seen from within the sanctuary where the glory of God (Kavod) dwells, the order is reversed and their placement may be referred to as "stage right" and "stage left" thus maintaining the universal right-left polarity explained above. (This reversal takes place in viewing icons and pictures as well, as the action within a picture is in a mirror image to the viewer.) Little has been said of these pillars in orthodox literature, however, esoteric and occult sources as well as the Freemasons have written copiously on the subject. Virtually all these sources concur in that these two pillars fall symbolically within the fore mentioned table of opposites as representing the male and female principles within nature. 18 The male principle, Almighty Father, for the Jew and the Christian, however, as stated above, is outside and above nature. Thus Jachin, translated "he has established" (stage right) represents the active transcendental male (Deus m.) Creator, and Boaz, "In his strength"(stage left) represents the receptive female (Materia f.) creation. See: Appendix 2

The dyadic nature of the relationship between the Deity and His creation is actually reflected in the Hebrew letter "he" , the symbol for "He Who Is," in contrast to the monistic mandala Eastern symbol for the unity of being seen above.


These same free standing pillars were absorbed by early Christianity and used in the same symbolic context as seen in the picture at the left of the 3rd Century Catacomb of St. Callixtus, the burial site of the early Popes and is seen also in the contemporary model depicting the original tomb of St. Peter 19 In the iconography of the Eastern, or Byzantine Church, these pillars often take the form of towers. The golden tower seen at "stage right" in the Slavic icon The Holy Spirit descending at Pentecost, shown to the right of this page thus represents the active Creator, while the silver tower seen at "stage left" represents the receptive creation. The Holy Spirit descends between the two towers from above (the spiritual realm) onto Mary and the Apostles below (earthly realm).



A further example of this Creator - Creation, Male - Female polarity is show in the icon from Crete of the Philoxenia representing Abraham and Sarah visited by the three strangers seen below to the right. This type of icon is also known in the Byzantine Church as the Old Testament Trinity and is known to many in its more famous rendition by the Russian master Anton Rubylev. Rubylev's version, however, lacks much of the symbolism of this later version.

According to the Eastern tradition, the entire composition is placed in a golden setting signifying that the picture represents an eternal theme. Here again we see the golden tower "stage right" representing the Creator and the silver tower "stage left" representing the creation. If one observes closely, the golden tower "opens" on to the male, Abraham, while the silver tower is sealed over the woman, the infertile Sarah, whose head is covered and hand concealed. Trees representing life grow from their respective heads towards each other: from Sarah a single trunk, and from Abraham a double trunk to signify the line of Ishmael born of the slave girl, and the line of Isaac to be born of Sarah. The three seated "angels" are displayed with their right hands displaying three fingers identifying them with the Tri-une Deity. They also carry in their left hands, rods (the male symbol "baton de commandemant") of equal length representing their equal authority. The three angelic strangers, according to tradition, represent a manifestation of the Trinity of God. (possibly, Micha-el = who is like God, reminiscent of the Father; Gabri-el = messenger of God, reminiscent of the Word; and Rapha-el = healing of God, reminiscent of the Holy Spirit.). In continuing symbolism, The angel on the "stage left" creation side has his feet on a square form below representing the earth as "God's foot stool." Both Abraham and Sarah bring equal offerings (bowls) to the angels seated below at table as again representing equal dignity. The table is square, a symbol of the material creation with its four corners, four winds and four elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water). The sacred meal which they are seen sharing is, presumably, representative of both the Jewish Passover and the Christian Eucharist.

From a Christian perspective, however, the traditional Ukrainian Catholic icon shown to the left depicting the Annunciation holds the full meaning of the Creator and Creation towers or pillars. At the moment of the Annunciation, the golden tower, stage right, is joined to the silver tower, stage left by a shawl to symbolize a mystical marriage between God and His chosen people the Jews in particular and creation in general. .20 This mystical marriage is a recurrent theme throughout the Old Testament. "No longer shall men call thee forsaken, or thy land desolate; thou shall be called my beloved and thy land a home... Gladly as a man takes home the maiden of his choice...Gladly the Lord shall greet thee as the bridegroom his bride." (Isaiah 62: 4,5) .21

The details of this great mystery are visually presented in this icon as well. Beneath the golden tower, the Angel Gabriel, messenger of God, extends his right hand displaying three fingers while in his left hand he carries a rod, baton de commandemant, topped with three balls. He thus approaches Mary showing that he bears a message from the Triune God. Mary holds up her right hand to inform the angel that she "knows not man" (the stage right "masculine" pillar within the silver "creation" tower) In her left hand she holds a spindle of thread, reminiscent of Ariadne, that will lead souls to salvation. The Holy Spirit descends from above to overshadow her as she receives the Divine Child in her womb. .21 In fulfillment of the Scriptures and the aspiration of all humanity, the Creator and creation were joined in a unique manner in the person of Jesus Christ at this precise moment.

The divine hyrogamos or nuptial between God and His Creation may be schematically presented as in either of the following diagrams. To the left is the Byzantine model where the two towers representing God and His creation are joined by the marriage shawl to produce Jesus Christ, True God and true man. To the right is the more familiar Western monogram depicting the two realms of Creator and creation joined in the cross. This union was prefigured in the first Passover when the Hebrew people were commanded to smear the two upright posts as well as the lintel with the blood of the slain lamb to ensure their salvation. (Exodus 12:7)

 In Western art many of the symbols of iconography are reduced or omitted for aesthetic reasons as well as for psychological reasons, as the Western Church placed fuller emphasis on the word rather than the image in its catechesis. The fundamental right - left, up - down polarity, however, remained intact as seen in the following examples of early Renaissance art. 

In these three paintings by Fra Amgelico, Felippo Lippi, and Mausolino Da Pancale, respectively, the right - left orientation of the realm of Grace (divine life) and the realm of nature is maintained


 The male - female analogy continues in the New Testament. Jesus Christ is the bridegroom (Matt. 9:16, Mark 2:19, John 3:29) and the Church his spotless bride. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church, and delivered himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, cleansing her in the bath of water by means of the word; ...For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery - I mean in reference to Christ and the Church." (Ephesians 2: 25 - 27, 31-32) This mystery was touched upon by both the Eastern and Western Church Fathers. St Ambrose states clearly that, "The husband is Christ, the wife is the Church, a bride for her love, a virgin for her unsullied purity." *** Clement of Alexandria spoke of "The spiritual body which is Church" and Tertulian distinguished between the "spiritual body of Christ, as the Church, and the "carnal body of Christ" as man. The actual term "Mystical body of Christ" in reference to the Church as distinguished from the "natural Body of Christ" was first used by William of Auxerre (died 1231) and was promulgated as solemn definition, by Pope Boniface VIII in his Bull Unam Sanctam which states: "There is only one Catholic Church, and that one apostolic... Thus the spouse proclaims in the Canticle, 'One is my dove: my perfect one is but one. She is the only one of her mother, the chosen one of her that bore her.' Now this chosen one represents the one Mystical Body whose head is Christ, and Christ's head is God." While extolling the intimacy of union between Christ and His members in the Mystical Body, it is imperative to see the radical difference between this intimacy and substantial union. This doctrine is fundamental to the Catholic Faith and was forcefully defended by Pope Pius XII in his Encyclical Mystici Corporis in 1943. .22 Incorporation into the Mystical Body is through baptism -the cleansing bath of water- and faith in the word. The most perfect and intimate union between the Bridegroom and the bride is in the sacrament of the Eucharist wherein the actual carnal body, blood, soul, and Divinity of Christ is consumed by the faithful. "He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life." (John 6: 54) At this moment the active male Christ becomes "one flesh" with the passive human person that is a member of the Mystical Body, Holy Mother Church so that,"...we may come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled Himself to partake of our humanity." (Offertory prayer of the R. C. Mass)

An interesting and recurrent theme in both Eastern and Western symbolic iconography is the Crucifixion with generally anthropomorphic sun and moon symbols placed upper stage right and left according to their attributed gender.

Byzantine Crucifix

Romanesque Crucifix

The iconography of the Byzantine crucifix is, as always the more complete. At the top, outside the frame of the cosmos, resides the Eternal Father who blesses the scene below. Within the cosmic scene at the top, stage right and stage left respectively, flanking the two grieving angels, are the "male" sun and the "female" moon. This schematic placement follows the pagan or pre-Christian understanding of the cosmos as we have seen. There is an interesting innovation, however, in this and virtually all depictions of the Crucifixion, that show the reversal of the natural order within the New Dispensation. Mary is to Christ's right and St. John to His left. In the Byzantine icon above, however, we see not only Mary but, three women to Christ's right, and St. John and the Centurion to his left. The message, I believe, is made clear by the two instruments of torment standing immediately beside the cross. Stage right is the distinctively male spear and stage left is the distinctively feminine cup. The cosmic order has not been annulled but raised to a new meaning. Mary (Church f.) is given by Christ the active authority by the words, "Mother behold thy son," then to the disciple, Behold thy mother" (John 19: 26,27) Mary (Church) thus receives the authority of the Father over the Centurion (civil order m.). The Romanesque Crucifixion above, although painted more crudely, follows the same formula as the Byzantine archetype even to include the skull at the bottom signifying Christ's triumph over death.


Another way of showing this same analogy of the supernatural order superseding the natural and forming a new creation is seen in many medieval and early Renaissance triptychs. In this case the cosmic active Male and receptive Female of the created order are represented on the outer panels by the two rock escarpments behind a man and a woman respectively, and the Mystery of Salvation, with its reversal, within the central panel. Such is the case in the Crucifixion scene painted Perugino now housed in the National Gallery in Washington, DC. A schematic presentation of this iconographic message would appear as similar to the "mongram' of Jesus - I H S -made famous by St. Bernardino of Sienna in the 14th century and used to this day by the Jesuits and others. A sixteenth century block print of the "monogram" is represented below to the left. The outer I and S represent the active Creator and receptive Creation respectively. The two bars of the H represent the active and passive joined in the new creation brought about by Christ's sacrifice on the cross.


The two paintings shown below, the top section of Jan Van Eyk’s 1432 Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, (1) and Hugo Van der Goes Portinari Altarpiece, (2) show the same distribution In the first instance Adam (M) stands stage right and Eve(F) stage left according to the natural order of creation. In the center panel according to the new dispensation of grace, the order is reversed with the Blessed Virgin Mary at the right hand of the Father and St. John to his left. In the second example, as in the case of Perugino, it is simply male figures with - spear and rock (m) – that stand stage right and women backed by – vegetation (f) – that represent the natural order while the adoration of the Christ with Mary stage right and the shepherds stage left. (Behind the Virgin, stage right is a pillar representing God the Father and a footless St. Joseph as foster father.)




  There are, in fact, myriad visual presentations of the Mystery of Salvation that follow the basic formulas presented above. To emphasize this fact I should like to show three more examples: one taken from the Byzantine or Eastern tradition, and the other two from the Western Catholic tradition.

The first is a fresco from the Church of the Savior of Chora in Constantinople. Painted between 1313 - 1330, it is labeled at the top Anastasis or Resurrection. This painting is often described as the "harrowing of Hell" or "descent into Limbo," but as the title clearly states, it depicts the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Two rock escarpments converge over the scene. These shapes, as seen above, ( just as the pillars or towers) represent the active Divine principle and the passive creation finally converging over the Savior. Christ is at the center dressed in priestly white. He is surrounded by a mandorla, or truncated intersection of two circles, indicating His two natures, Divine and human. With his right hand He raises Adam, the archetypal man (stage right) and with His left hand he raises Eve, Mother of all the living. Both Adam and Eve lurch precariously over the yawning chasm that opens before them. Eve's cape points downward toward the infernal regions, the realm of death justly deserved by humanity through the offense of Original Sin. The Gates of Hell at Our Lords feet burst asunder as Satan and his fetters are plunged into the pit.

The second picture is from an illuminated manuscript titled the Très Riche Hueres of Jean Duc de Berry, painted by the Limbourg brothers between 1413 - 1446. It is obviously a vision of Hell and would appear to be the bottom half of the Byzantine paining described above. Here the same rock escarpments converge at the end of time as the souls of the damned fall into the flame issuing forth from the demon's mouth.

The final piece in this section is Fra Angelico's fresco of the Last Judgment painted c. 1440 and presently displayed in the Museum of San Marco in Florence.

The case of Fra Angelico is somewhat unique. Not only is he universally recognized as a painter of genius, he has also been raised by the Roman Catholic Church to the title of Blessed, one step below canonization as a Saint. Naturally graced with great talent and imbued with a supernatural vision he may well be called the quintessential "Catholic artist." It is therefore worthy of note that he follows the universal up - down, right - left symbolism in his painting. See Appendix # 1 esp. Myth of Er

In this painting of the resurrection and judgment on the last day, Christ comes down from Heaven above riding the clouds surrounded by His angels and already risen saints. As in the Byzantine Anastasis, He is framed in the mandorla symbolic of His two natures. Below, the earthly tombs are opened and the dead rise to judgment, as the angels blow their trumpets. The blessed, from all ranks and walks of life, stand on the Lord's right (stage left) and are led upward to the gates of paradise (upper corner stage left) by angels as St. Dominic and St. Thomas look on in joy. The damned, on the Lord's left (stage right), are led downward by demons. (Mathew 25: 31-33) The scenes over the entrance of the pit (bottom corner, stage right) represent the bolgia (levels)of Hell described by Dante in his Inferno where appropriate torments are meted out for the Seven Capital Sins.

We have seen thus far, not only how the universal symbols of man originate in the innate understanding of his own identity, his sense of the divine, the division or rupture inherent within creation and his desire for unity and wholeness, but how these desires are fulfilled in the unique event of the Incarnation and the Mystery of Salvation.

The second part of this treatise will deal with the same symbols and their subtle (and not so subtle) variations from the Renaissance to the present.


Second Part



End Notes

 ** Within the Roman Catholic tradition, the natural order of reality is studied and understood within its own context. The supernatural order, that is to say, Revelation does not abrogate what is understood of the natural order, but builds on and adds to it. This study will be based on the evidence of symbolic manifestation existing in the natural order and how these symbols are transformed in accordance with revealed truths.


 1) See for example: Edward Sapir, Language: An Introduction to the Study Of Speech (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1921); and his "symbolism article in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: Macmillan, 1934); Mircea Eliade, Traite d'histoire des religions (Paris, Payot, 1949); Mircea Eliade, Images et symbols, essai sur le symbolism magico religieux (Paris: Gallimard, 1952); Mircea Eliade, Mythes, reves et mystères (Paris: Galliard, 1957); Georges Poullet, Les metmophoses du cercle (Paris: Pion, 1961);Carl Gustav Jung,, Psychology and Religion: West and East (English trans., Princeton University Press: 1958); Psyche and Symbol (New York: Double-Anchor, © Bollingen Foundation Inc.. 1958); Man and His Symbols (London: Aldous Books, 1964); Analytical Psychology (New York, Random House, 1968); Joseph Campbell The Hero With A Thousand Faces (New York: MJF Books, © Bollingen Foundation, 1949); The Mythic Image (Princeton University Press, 1974); Transformations of Myth Through Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1990)

 2) Martin C. D'arcy, The Meaning and Matter of History (New York: The Noonday Press, 1967) p.68

 3) Claude Levi Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, Introduction to a science of Mythology, Volume one. Chicago; Chicago University Press, 1983) Overture. See also Claude Levi Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Vol. 2 (University of Chicago Press: 1983) 37-42 .

4) While many of the insights of Sigmund Freud regarding the workings of "subconscious" mental processes are valid and of interest, his basic premise regarding the Oedipal origins of neurosis in a repressed racial memory of sexual pleasure/guilt and repression is pure invention. There is simply no anthropological evidence for the primal tribe that killed and devoured the patriarch and incestually possessed the mother. By his own admission he developed this theory because of his perception of " the vain efforts of human beings threatened with disaster and the necessity of resignation" and "ones own impotence before the will of the gods" which he would not accept. Cit. Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, 1938 Edition, p. 103. Psychologically speaking, a far more intellectually satisfying natural understanding in keeping with Dr. Freud's own position of primal conflict is found in Hesiod,s Theogony vss. 50-80 where Gaia (Mother Earth) induces her children, esp. Kronos (time) to rebel against the Patriarchal Ouranus, (Sky God) who "wickedly" refused to allowed them to see the light.

5) J.A. Laponce, Spatial Archetypes and Political Perception, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 69, 1975

6) H. L. von Franz, The Process of Individuation; Aniela Jaffe, Symbolism in the Visuaal Arts in Man and His Symbols ed. C.G. Jung (New York: Doubleday, 1964) pp. 160-162, 240-241. The ubiquitous nature of this symbolic configuration used by children as a means of expressing self identity is confirmed by twenty years personal experience teaching elementary school art. It is most often seen as a doodle done while daydreaming and often appears during times of stress for an emotionally immature or self-absorbed child.(I have such images in my own files) One such child who was suffering anxiety over his poor academic performance, home life, and uncertainty over self worth, drew such a figure during class and subsequently tried to destroy the drawing in self-destructive rage by poking holes in it repeatedly with his pencil.

7) See: Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959) pp. 20 - 36. Also: J.E Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols (New York: Philosophical Library, 1983) pp. 199-203

8) Swami Bhasyananda, in Vivekananda (Chenai: [Inidia] Swami Jyotirmayanda, 2000) p.131




This concept of the essentially divine nature of man entered the Western philosophical tradition along with its symbolism via such neoplatonists as Plotinus, and Proclus and from the writings of Hermes-Trismagisus. It was the latter who is credited with the formula, "Deus est sphaera infinita cuijus centrum est ubique nusquam circumferentiae"(God is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere). It is the central doctrine of the "Gnosticism" that battled against Early Christianity. According to A.J. Fustigiere, the pessimist Gnostics, e.g. the Manechians, believed that the world was impregnated with evil and must be avoided through asceticism and purification, while the optimist Gnostics held that world was filled with divinity and therefore all was permissible. It flowered in Renaissance circles around Marcilio Ficino, Pico dela Mirandola , and Giordano Bruno. (To be discussed in Part II of this treatise) In modern times it was espoused by the American Transcendalists, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman who came under the influence of the Vedic master Swami Jogut Sangooly 

9) For an authoritative overview of Wiccan Neo-paganism See: Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986)

10) The serpent or dragon symbolism is of ancient origin. These figures (d r a k o n t o s , draconis, for either one in Greek and Latin) represent the "life force." According to Cirlot "If all symbols are really functions of things imbued with energy, the serpent or snake is, by analogy, symbolic of energy itself - of force pure and simple." J.E. Cirlot A Dictionary of Symbols (New York: Philosophical Library, 1983) p. 285. It is seen frequently in Mesopotamian, Cretan, and Greek art, usually as paired opposites representing masculine and feminine energies according to the near universal formula expressed in various tables of opposites. See:-appendix-one- (below) As to the Caduceus, see: Cirlot. 35 -37

11) Lao Tzu, The Way of Life Tao te Ching R.B. Blakney, Trans.(New York: New America Library,955) p. 37 This is not to be confused with the 6th century writings of Confucius who also used the word Tao (way) to describe a system that is in many ways similar to the Western concept of Natural Law.

12)Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (New York: Dorset Press, 1974) pp. 362-68

13) ibid. J.E cirlot, p. 351

14) ibid. Gershom Scholem, p.194

15) Const. Dei Filius, Vatican I cap. I, ca 1-4. This is the official Roman Catholic dogmatic statement regarding this matter as formulated at the First Vatican Council.

This does not preclude God's active presence in the created order. While St. Thomas Aquinas states that. " is impossible for God to enter into the composition of anything, either as formal or material principle." (ST, 1,3,8), he goes on to say that, "God is in all things, not indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident, but as agent is present to that on which it acts immediately, and reach it by its power; hence it is proved in [Aristotle] vii. That the thing moved and mover must exist together."



16) The depiction of the spiral symbol shown to the left was drawn by an eight-year-old boy in a highly emotional state after listening to a concert of African drum rhythms (observed by this author). This would confirm the near universal psychological hypothesis that this symbol has visceral connotations. The spiral or labyrinth as a symbol of involution, has been associated with the "feminine" principle from the Stone age to the present as seen in the schematic "woman" shown below to the left by Marija Gimbutas "language of the Goddess" (Harper&Row) and the etching by Pablo Picasso to the right. According to Clare Tuffy, chief guide of New Grange, at the Winter Solstice, a shaft of sunlight covers the three spirals representative of the triple Goddess and fecundates the land for the following year. Historically, at least in the majority of traditions, (see: appendix # 1 below) the sun and sunlight have represented the "masculine" principle. Thus the "sun symbol" generally represents the masculine sky god and the "spiral" the feminine earth mother. It is the work of religion, [or in primitive religions, the shaman ] to unite these two opposites.(coincidetia opsitorum) There is ample evidence from primitive religions of gender transforming rituals to bring this androgynous union about. See: Elémire Zola, The Androgyne (New York: Crossroad, 1981) The figure shown directly below represents an aboriginal shaman holding a shield wherein is depicted symbolically this fusion of the male and female principles.

Stone age schematic, Marija Gimbutas.


Prehistoric petroglyph, Bryce Canyon, Utah

Picasso -woman-



 17) For a resume of the original details of the story of Pasiphae, Theseus, and the Minotaur see: Mark Morford & Robert Lenardon, Classical Mythology (New York: Longman, 1977)

 18) While Biblical scholar John L. McKenzie, S. J. affirms the basic translation of Jachin and Boaz as variants of "He will establish" and "in strength" respectively, he refrains from further commentary save that many scholars believe that they must have had some symbolic cosmological significance. John L. McKenzie, S.J. Dictionary of the Bible (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1965) p. 774

According to Occultist, Thomas Troward, cited in Eden Gray's A complete Guide to the Tarot (New York: Bantam Books, 11th printing, 1982). The two pillars (Jachin & Boaz) "contain the key to the entire Bible and to the whole order of Nature, and as emblems of the two great principles (male & female) that are the pillars of the universe, they fitly stood at the threshold of that temple which was designed to symbolize the mysteries of Being...). Abert Pike in his Morals and Dogma of Free Masonry (Charleston: A\ M\ 5680) p.849, "...the Ineffable Name, and dividing it, it becomes bi-sexual ...and discloses its meaning ...The highest of which the Columns Jachin and Boaz are the symbol. 'In the image of Deity,' we are told, 'God created the Man; Male and Female.'" (this concept alluded to by Pike will be discussed within the text in the second part of this treatise - Symbolism II, From the Renaissance to the Present -

19) In the Traditional Mass, prior to changes made after Vatican II, there were two positions reminiscent of Jachin and Boaz designated for the reading of Scripture, the so called, Gospel side, and Epistle side. The Gospel, the life of Our Lord (m. active) was always read stage right of the central tabernacle, and the Epistles, the life of the Church (f. receptive) from stage left.

 20) See also for example: The Song of Solomon, Hosea 2:19-20, Jeremiah 3:14, Ezekiel 16:8-14 etc.

.21) "Blessed is the womb of the Virgin Mary who bore the Son of the Almighty Father" (Communion Ant. From the common mass of the B.V.M.). CCC, 511. "The Virgin Mary "cooperated through free faith and obedience in human salvation" (LG 56). She uttered her yes "in the name of all human nature" (emphasis added) (STh III,30, 1). By her obedience she became the new Eve, mother of all the living." According to Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., " In the act of redemption, this Creator-creation relationship is raised to a new order. That nothingness out of which all creation came is raised to the level of personality in Mary, whose virginity and whose "nothingness" express the perfection of all material creation raised to the personal. God speaks a second word - a word of grace and redemption - not this time into the void of non-being, but into the personal emptiness, the receptivity of the purest virgin. Mary, who is symbol of all creation, becomes at that moment the symbol of the Church as bride of Christ. God becomes man and specifically male, not arbitrarily, but because God so created the real symbolic world of man and woman precisely to provide for Himself a language in which He can speak to us. The male Christ therefore represents and is the presence of God the Father (whose perfect image He is) in the midst of maternal creation and maternal Church, which is Mary." The Mediation of Mary in the Church. Rev. Joseph Fessio, S.J., from his book, The Church and Women (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989,) p. 184. Hans Urs von Balthasar continuing the analogy refers to Mary as "Mater, Materia, Matrix" (Mother, Matter and Pure Womb) from which God can fashion whatever he will." Elucidations, "The Marian Principle"(London: SPCK, 1975) p.68 ( It should be noted that, mater, materia, matrix all derive from the Indo-European base phoneme "ma" denoting the fundamental feminine principle)

 22) "For some... failing to distinguish as the should the precise and proper meaning of the terms the physical body, the social body, and the mystical Body, arrive at a distorted idea of unity. They make the Divine Redeemer and the members of the Church coalesce in one physical person...But Catholic faith and the writings of the holy Fathers reject such false teaching as impious and sacrilegious; and to the Apostle of the Gentiles it is equally abhorrent, for although he brings Christ and His Mystical Body into a wonderfully intimate union, he nevertheless distinguishes one from the other as Bridegroom from Bride," Pius XII Mystici Corporis, Art. 86. For a clear exposition of the problems which arise from a misinterpretation of this doctrine, see, Father John Hardon, S.J. The Mystical Body of Christ, The Catholic Faith magazine, Inter Mirifica 1997



Appendix One

The dyadic nature of imaginative expression

Male/Female - Right/Left - Up/Down

Unlike other Indo-European languages ( French, Italian,German, Russian etc. ), the English language differentiates masculine and feminine only as regards procreative ability in plants and animals. All inanimate objects are relegated, in English, to the genderless class of neuter. This fact, unfortunately, makes it more difficult for an English speaking audience to grasp the "poetic" or unconscious proclivity of human beings, especially but not exclusively children and primitive peoples, to animate the surrounding world with anthropomorphic male and female projections.

Writing in 1905, Edison Best was one of the first anthropologists to observe critically the universal propensity of primitive man to attribute gender to all beings in the universe including inanimate objects, and the division of all reality into two immense classes which are identifiable as male and female. Discussing the Maori of New Zealand, Best quoted their expressions, tama tane, "male side" to designate virility and creative force, and tama wahine, "female side" to designate corresponding passivity. This cosmic distinction, for the Maori, rests on a primordial religious understanding of good and evil in which maleness and femaleness are the basic constituents. The Maori religion, according to Best, considers the male sacred and the female profane. The woman, for the Maori, is the source from whom all evils (including sorcery) come to man. 1

According to another pioneer in the field, T.O Beidelman, the Kagurus people of Tanzania offer a classic example of this same dialectic. Sedentary cultivators of the land, the Kagurus live in scattered settlements. They believe that their tribe originated in the West associated with the moon, and that they are traveling Eastward toward the sun, the direction of the outside world. When the Kaguru march to new settlements, lines are formed with the men on the right and the women on the left. The spatial alignment is so sacred that it is re-enacted in both procreation and death, the man lying on the right and the woman on the left in both instances. This duality is taken to an extreme that the left side of the body is presumed to be feminine and inherited from the mother, and the right side, male and inherited from the father. Purity, strength, power and life are considered to reside on the right; pollution, weakness and death are on the left. 2

Beidelman reported also on the Meru tribe of Kenya. Although the Meru extoled the "left hand" of their revolutionary leader against Christian colonization, they divide the male and female, both individually and collectively, along what appears to be a near universal understanding of dyadic Male-Female polarity: 3

Right North White clan Day Sun Man Superior

Left South Black clan Night Moon Woman-child Inferior

A similar dichotomy appears among the Zuni Indians of the American South West. The Zuni personify the left and right sides of the body as two distinct brother gods, the former passive and reflective and the latter active and impulsive. As pacifists, the Zuni extolled the former. 4

One of the largest surviving indigenous societies of the New World, the Mapuche of Chile, divide the principle categories as follows: 5

Right-------- Man--------- Good-------Life --------- Day --------Shaman -----Afterlife -----(good)spirits- Sun---------White -------Dominant ---Above ------Mapuche----

 Left --------- Woman-child- Evil-----------Death---------Night--------- Sorcerer -----Underworld --(evil)spirits ---Moon --------Black --------Subordinate--below --------(Other)-------


The evidence of this intuited dialectical polarity is virtually inexhaustible from ancient to modern times and extends across the entire globe. Not only do we find the masculine/feminine duality in North and South America and Africa, but in Australia and Asia as well. In the ancient Vedic (Indian) legend, the dominant male Mitra (the sun) impregnates the passive female Varuna (the moon). Even the Chinese, who reverse polarity at times, divide the cosmos into male and female forces of Yang and Yin. Very early depictions of the dual principle show a brother and sister, Fou-Hi and Niu-Koua whose bodies are entwined in incestuous union (primal androgyne); the male head on the right and female on the left. The woman holds in her right hand a compass for making circles, while the man holds in his left hand a set square for making angles 6

Dialectical symbolism continues into Western Civilization with the Greeks, in the works of Parmenedes, Pythagoras and Plato. Even the encyclopedic Aristotle, who based his philosophy on the categories of observed phenomena, presumed "Right," "Above" and "In Front" to be starting points and superior according to the Pythagorian table of opposites 7

Right --Straight Light-- Good -Up----

Left --Curved Dark--Evil -- Down


The intuitive placement of a dominant male deity in the sky above and the dismal abode of the dead below apparently conforms to a near universal construct. This does not, however, mean that there are no exceptions. According to Human Relations Area Files prepared in 1977 by UNESCO, of the sixty examples where sufficient data was available, fifty three cultures placed the dominant divinity above, three valued up and down equally, and only four favored down over up.


According, for example, to the classical Greek Cosmogony as initially propounded by Hesiod, Ouranos, the male sky god is above the female goddess, Gaia, Mother Earth. From the union of these two primitive cosmic principals come the Titans, or primal forces of nature. The union of the primal forces Chronos (m) time with Rhea(f) feminine charm produces Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the anthropomorphic gods, and through them Ares the god of war and Aphrodite the goddess of carnal love. The union of these two produces Harmonia, harmony, this latter considered an illicit union that would eventually lead to universal frenzy and chaos. By contrast, the union of the primal forces Chronos, time and Phoibe, brilliance, produce ultimately Apollo the brilliant sun god and Artemis the cool reflective moon goddess and through them, poetic inspiration. As can be seen, the mythopoetic understanding of the Greeks, starting from Oyranos and Gaia, works itself out methodically in the standard up-down, right-left, male-female dyadic reciprocity or zyzygy


A final pre - Christian example of this right/left, up/down analogy of paired opposites is presented by Plato's Myth of Er which concerns the plight of the dead souls. When the shades of the fallen arrive at the plain of judgment they are confronted by judges who must decide whether they merit the "right hand" road of the just "upward" or the "left hand" road of the ignoble "downward." The just place a placard listing their virtues in front while the ignoble carry a placard of their misdeeds behind. Interestingly, neither the just nor the ignoble receive eternal judgment as they are reborn every aeon or thousand years. The journey of the human soul, according to Plato, follows an endless cycle of reincarnations according to the eternal "figure eight," 8 the cosmic "Lemniscate" or "infinity" symbol. 8

In conclusion, it would appear that for whatever reason, the unconscious or intuitive understanding of human nature

considers 1) the right hand side to be male, dominant and usually superior and 2) places the Male principle above as

active and dominant over the passive (or sometimes hostile) Female principle below. Any change in this configuration generally reflects a psychological or religious deviation from the norm.9





End Notes to Appendix One

1. Robert Hertz "The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand" (1909) in Right & Left, essays on dual symbolic classification edited, by Rodney Needham, (University of Chicago Press, 1973) p. 9. This is the seminal work on this subject to which most other authors refer.

2. J. A. Laponce Left and Right, The Topography of Political Perception (University of Toronto Press, 1981) p. 29

3. ibid. pp. 29 -30

4. ibid. p. 18

5. Louis C. Faron, (1962) "Symbolic Values among the Mapuche of Chile" in Right & Left ed. R. Needham, pp. 192 -94

6. Marcel Granet (1933) "Right and Left in China" in Right & Left R. Needham p. 56

7. ibid J.A p.31

8. Plato, The Republic, Trans. F. Cornford (Oxford University Press, 1945) pp. 350 - 359

9. J.A. Laponce, "Political Community, Legitimacy and Discrimination" British Journal of Political Science, 4 (June 1974). 125-126. See also: Robert Hertz, La prééminence de la main droite: êtudes sur la polarité religieuse, translation by Rodney Needham (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1973) pp74-87





Appendix Two



The Man Woman Relationship

By Rev. Joseph Fessio, S.J., from his book, The Church and Women (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989,) p. 184; quoted with permission


In creating the natural world and in particular in creating human brings male and female, God had in view both his ultimate intention of divinization or elevation of mankind and also the salvation of a fallen mankind through the Incarnation. Thus among the many meanings of the distinction of sexes, saints and theologians throughout the entire tradition of the Church have discerned an important symbolic or representative Function which men and women fulfill in their very being.

Sexual differentiation is manifested in what biologists call the reproductive system. And although this difference extends into every cell in the human body, it is expressed most obviously and visibly in the physical differentiation between men and women. But it would be a lapse into metaphysical dualism to think that these differences were merely physical or biological. By the principle of the Incarnation, in which the invisible is intimately united with and expressive of the spiritual, these physiological differences are a manifestation of a mysterious' but profound spiritual complementarity between men and women. Difficult as it is to describe this complementarity in adequate language, it may be seen from the vantage point of the marital act, or by the reproductive act, as characterized by equal dignity and equally active participation but diversity of role.

The woman is active in receiving from outside of her that which comes from the man and nourishing within her the new life which is the fruit of their union. The man is active in giving what is interior to him into the womb of the woman. For this reason, even though both man and woman come from the creative act of a God who contains eminently all the perfections of all his creatures, woman has been created by God to represent what she and her male helpmate are by nature, i.e., creatures who receive all of their being from the creating God. And man has been created by God to represent what he and the woman are not: the creating God who gives being to nothingness, who speaks his word into the receiving void. He speaks and material creation (Materia = Mater) is. This does not imply any difference in dignity be between man and composite, woman as creatures of God. But it does express a difference in roles intended by God so that the human which cannot live or communicate without material symbols, would have this symbolic representation drawn from the highest of God's creatures to help those creatures grasp in their proper form of knowledge the relationship between God and his creation.

Mediation of Mary -- Church

In the act of redemption, this Creator-creation relationship is raised to a new order. That nothingness out of which all creation came is raised to the level of personality in Mary, whose virginity and whose "nothingness" express the perfection of all material creation raised to the personal. God speaks a second word -- a word of grace and redemption --not this time into the void of non-being, but into the personal emptiness, the receptivity of the purest Virgin. Mary, who is the symbol of all creation, becomes at that moment the symbol of the Church as Bride of Christ. God becomes man and specifically male, not arbitrarily, but because God has so created the real-symbolic world of men and women precisely to provide for Himself a language in which He can speak to us. The male Christ therefore represents and is the presence of God the Father (whose perfect image He is) in the midst of the maternal creation and maternal church which is Mary. "


St. Ambrose (Esposizione del Vangelo Secondo Luca: Opera Esegetica X/II Milan-Rome: 1978, p289. 

 St. Ambrose goes on to say in, Le Vergini "Holy Church is immaculate in her spousal union: fruitful in giving birth, she is a virgin through her chastity, yet she is a mother of the children she conceives . Thus we are born from a virgin who has conceived, not by a human act but through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are therefore born of a virgin, not in physical travail but amid rejoicing of angels. A virgin nourishes us, not with the milk of her body, but with what the Apostles talks about when he speaks of having breast fed the weak state of the adolescent people of God

"What married woman has more children than holy Church? She is virgin through the holiness she receives in the sacraments and she is mother of peoples. Her fertility is also attested by scripture which says: "For the children of the desolate one will be more than children of she who is married' (Isaiah 54:1 cf. Gal. 4:27); our mother has no husband but she has a bridegroom, for both the Church in the peoples and the soul in individuals --imune from any kind of infidelity, fruitful in the life of the spirit -- not without modesty, espouse the Word of God as their eternal Bridegroom" (I, 31: SAEMO 14/1, pp. 132-133).

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