Signs and Mysteries

Magna enim in eis signa et mysteria continentur.

Remigius of Auxerre, Ennarationes in Psalmos (PL 131.259D)

A Catholic friend, author and blogger Mike Aquilina, has a new book out, illustrated by Lea Marie Ravotti, published by Our Sunday Visitor, Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols. OSV has been very kind to send a review copy. I trust the kindness is repaid here.

First off, this is a beautifully printed little book. I wouldn’t so overly simplify as to say that I always judge a book by its cover, but I do think a good book should be complemented by a good book design and production. This little volume passes with flying colors. Externally, it’s a small hardback (8.75 x 5.5 x .75 inches [21 x 14 x 1.75 cm]), with a smooth dark nut-brown cover with gilt lettering on the spine. The dustjacket is nice, thick, glossy paper (you may see the front of it at the link above), and includes a nice picture of a smiling Mr Aquilina on the rear flap. The binding of the 188 numbered pages is glued, not sewn; of course, this is sufficiently sturdy for this small book, and it is very nicely done.

Upon opening the book, however, one is truly treated to an example of very fine book design. The font is delicate (so may not make ideal unaided reading for those readers with vision problems) and all the text and illustrations are in a brown ink, rather than black, on a creamy matte paper. The font is really very nice, indeed. The choice of the brown ink is espcially striking for its effect in the illustrations. And these illustrations are absolutely beautifully done. There is a kind of classic delicacy in the treatment, which is difficult to elaborate, but which harks back to earlier traditions of monochrome illustration. There is a very nearly photographic realism to some of the illustrations (I think here of the Galilean cross on page 151), while others are more impressionistic (like the watercolor depiction of the “cross” on the wall at Herculaneum, page 150), and all represent the ancient art accurately, with a minimum of fussiness (no bothersome dotted lines of reconstructions, etc.), making the images much more accessible. Though some were certainly determined by their being mentioned in the text, others which are not mentioned are also included, rounding out the portrayals of these ancient visual depictions, and assisting in giving at least some taste of the style of depiction used in the ancient churches. The selected illustrations are excellent accompaniment to the text, and another pleasure is that there are so many of them, on average more than one every other page.

The text itself is a delight. Mike has managed to write a short beginner’s introduction to the visual imagery of the first four centuries of the Church. The twenty-six chapters following the Introduction cover (at varying length) such topics as “The Fish,” “The Peacock,” “The Lamb,” “The Anchor” and “Alpha and Omega.” (A bibliography of Works Consulted concludes the volume.) I am already thinking of several people of several ages for whom this book will be a fine introduction to the symbols used in the art of the Early Church. Mike explains clearly and simply the symbology (that is, the system of visual typology) used by the ancient artists which is so very similar to the textual typology employed in Patristic commentary of Scripture. The book is, in fact, peppered with Patristic citations, cementing the two. The book is not directed at an academic audience. As Mike says, “This is not a work of scholarship, but an act of devotion—an act of piety toward our ancestors, so that we might learn to see the world once again with their eyes, and to pray and live as they once prayed and lived” (p. 9). But I would take issue with the statement that this book “is not a work of scholarship.” It most certainly is. I’ve seen no errors in any of the references to subject matter that I’m at all familiar with. There is a sufficient presence of “perhaps” and “maybe” in the book so as to keep things realistically grounded in what we do know and can know, rather than the contrary commonplace of assertions presented as fact. That is certainly good scholarship, deftly wielded with a light touch. It is not intimidating scholarship, not overpowering and jargon-laden, and is thus perfect for those who know nothing about the subject of early Christian art and the symbols employed therein. Those who will appreciate learning what their ancestors in the Faith were up to with all these anchors, ankhs, and alphas will be well repaid for their time spent within the pages of this truly lovely little book. For great are the signs and mysteries contained in them.

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