Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Statues without Limitation

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Statues without Limitation

Article excerpt

Through the centuries Catholicism has adapted symbols to reinvent itself.

WHEN I PRAY, I LIKE ALL MY SPIRITUAL DUCKS in a row. So I've rigged up a "mini sacred space" in my home: a cabinet filled with images of my favorite saints. As I contemplate them clad in the fashions of 2,000 years, I ponder how (despite differences of country and custom) each saint represents the continuity of Christianity's timeless truths.

While the Christian message is timeless, the language expressing that message must be made accessible to an ever-changing culture. It is through adaptability and ingenuity that Catholicism has been embraced by diverse cultures over the centuries.

A favorite occupant of my prayer cabinet is a Mexican wooden statue of Saint Michael. Crafted with robust folk charm, he plants both rustic boots on Satan's neck. The archangel brandishes a sword in one hand and the scales of justice in the other.

While Saint Michael's symbols are familiar to most Catholics, few know that his scales of justice are adapted from the ancient Egyptians from some 3,000 years ago. Egyptians believed that the hearts of the dead were weighed against the "Feather of Truth," determining eternal life or gobbling by demons. This archetype of justice has been Christianized into Saint Michael's warrior equipment and is even a symbol of justice today.

Another example of the church's talent for Christianizing non-Christian symbols was the popular Egyptian goddess Isis. Hailed as Queen of Heaven and regent of the stars, she was also Queen of the Sea. Though virgin mother of all life, Isis was shown seated with her divine son, Horus, on her lap. When Egypt's pharaoh sat on his throne, it was regarded as the "lap" of the Cosmic Mother Isis. One of her names was "Throne of Wisdom." Yet even the humblest worshiper could approach Isis, who acted as intermediary between the earthly and the divine.

Do these symbols sound familiar? Some bear an uncanny resemblance to the Litany of Loreto, which lauds the Virgin Mary as "seat of wisdom," "gate of heaven," "house of gold," and "morning star." Symbolic of Christianity absorbing and purifying paganism, the temples of Isis--often placed by the ocean--were rededicated to Our Lady, Star of the Sea. …

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