Christian Symbolism

Here’s an odd little item for your contemplation: Christian Symbolism, supposedly written by “Michal” Williams. ‘Michal’ is the somewhat unflattering nickname CW gave to his wife Florence, but which stuck so hard she even chose it as her nom de plume and it’s on her gravestone. Apparently Florence mocked him for reciting poetry loudly in crowded settings, so he called her “Michal” after King David’s wife, who scorned her husband for stripping and dancing in ecstasy before the Lord in public (see II Samuel 6:14-23).

In any case, it seems that although this little book is supposedly “by Michal Williams,” Charles wrote most of it. Lois Lang-Sims, describing the end of her relationship with CW, records that he awkwardly “took a small book, seemingly at random, from a shelf and presented it to me as a keepsake. (It was called Christian Symbolism and was under Michal’s name; though Charles murmured, as he handed it to me, that most of it had been written by him.)” (Lang-Sims 80). As we’ll see, I’m not sure “most” of it was by him, but certainly some of it was, and perhaps he had a shaping role in the whole volume.

Christian Symbolism contains quite simple discussions of various images and ideas that have been used throughout church history in art, architecture, illumination, and other places to communicate spiritual ideas visually. The body of the book reads almost like an artist’s manual or encyclopedia of imagery, with each symbol mentioned in a heading, then followed by a few paragraphs or so of commentary. It contains six chapters:

I. What is Symbolism?
II. The Nimbus–The Aureole–God the Father–The Holy Spirit
III. Our Lord in Symbolism
IV. The Trinity–The Soul–The Devil–Hell–Heaven
V. The Church–The Four Evangelists–Baptism–The Lord’s Supper–Churches–Vestments
VI. Miscellaneous–St. George

1920’s boy scout badge in the shape of a swastika with a fleur-de-lis

For example, the Church is shown as an ark or a ship. The writers of the four Gospels each have their traditional associations: Matthew = Winged Man/Angel; Mark = Lion; Luke = Winged Ox; John = Eagle. Chapter III talks about Jesus represented as a lamb, a lion, the conqueror of dragons, a panther (I didn’t know about that one), a fish, the phoenix, the pelican, the eagle, a Jonah-figure, and a shepherd. Chapter VI, Miscellaneous, talks about the dolphin (faithful believers), salamander (faith), centaur (Christ’s two natures, or the Christian’s old man and new man), griffin (omniscience and omnipotence), unicorn (chastity). Chapter V illustrates and discusses, various representations of the cross, including the fylfot cross or swastika. Remember, this was written in 1920, but for us after the second world war, it is strange to see a swastika used as “a sign of fire-gods and rain-gods, or good-fortune and of life,” “the most primitive and most universal of symbols,” and “the witness of the Cross which lies at the centre of all things” (21). I suppose the Nazi appropriation of that image has wrested it from its Christian context forever.

Here’s a sample entry, describing a mosaic depicting “The Wasters of Baptism” in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome:

“The Waters of Baptism”

This combination of symbols may be summed up thus–the Holy Spirit (the dove) sheds the radiancy of His great gift upon our Lord (the Cross) in His baptism (the medallion), and upon the waters of baptism (the four rivers) free to all who seek (the harts), and by which the faithful (the sheep) are admitted to the City of God (fortified against evil), the entrance begin guarded by the archangel whose office is to lead souls into the presence of God (St. Michael). Those who attain their habitation therein are victors (the palm) over evil, and rise again (the phoenix) to Eternal Life.

Christian Symbolism 68

Although simple, Christian Symbolism is a learned study, drawing on a wealth of sources. Indeed, there are a few comments that suggest occult knowledge, such as a discussion of the Tetragrammaton (10-11), a use of man as microcosm of the universe (5), a claim that the whole universe is a symbol of the Trinity (6). and a reference to Egypt as “the place of profound religious mysteries and symbols” (20). Did Charles tell his wife more about his Rosicrucian studies than we’ve thought? Or did he, as he “murmured” to Lang-Sims, write most of this book? Or both?

Some of the diction is distinctively recognizable as coming from Charles’s pen, as is much of the content. Even in the Table of Contents, the syntax, possessive pronoun, and idiomatic preposition usage of “Our Lord in Symbolism” is characteristic. On the very first page of the first chapter, the examples of symbolism include “the red cap of the Revolution, the nimbus of sanctity, […] a sword of St. Alban,” and other such odd instances that it’s hard to imagine anybody but CW coming up with them. There is a Coleridgian distinction between ‘imagination’ and ‘fancy’ (3); the application of Aristotelian definitions of the accidental and a discussion of symbols vs emblems. The authors asserts: “a symbol is rather a representative than a representation” (1). The discussion of the independent existence of a symbol (as opposed to an emblem, which exists only as a representation and not as something in its own right) is quite similar to the beginning of The Figure of Beatrice, where he talks about the difficulty of finding just the right word for the kind of symbolism he intends. There, he decides as ‘symbol’ is not sufficient and settles on ‘image.’ It is easy to speculate that as early as 1920, he was working out his exact definition of and scope for ‘symbol’ and ‘image,’ then either talked to Florence about it or wrote this part of the book.

For some reason, I find it funny to think of CW and Michal working together. I don’t know why, but I think of their marriage as rather cold and distant. Maybe that is completely wrong. As Christine Mary Hearn writes:

Michal Williams encouraged her husband in all his pursuits; she collaborated with him on a book of Christian symbolism, listened to him as he read his books in progress, and advised him when she thought he had made a mistake. It is generally acknowledged that the first chapter of All Hallows’ Eve was completely rewritten because Michal said it was wrong.

Charles Williams: Poet of the Affirmations (18)

However that may be, it seems unlikely that Florence wrote much of Christian Symbolism without his input. Here is what Grevel Lindop has to say about this short book and its putative author:

Although she could write well on occasion, Michal was not highly literate. She never used joined-up writing, her grammar was erratic, and to the end of her life she never mastered the possessive form of her husband’s name, often writing it as Charle’s. Only indomitable optimism could have convinced anyone that she was capable of writing a book. yet Williams must have thought it possible, for around 1918 Michal contracted with his uncle’s Talbot Press to write a book on Christian symbolism. The idea can hardly have been hers. Probably it was an attempt by Charles to involve Michal in his own interests and line of work. Predictably, it was a disaster.

The Third Inkling 70

If I had to guess, I’d conjecture that CW wrote most of the introduction, but Michal wrote most of the interior prose, the descriptions of each symbol. Those entries are in a much plainer writing style, without many of CW’s distinctive phrases. There are still some, however, such as the opening of Chapter III, which claims “Blake’s great saying will be remembered” before quoting these lines:

The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

It seems odd that any woman (or, really, any normal person) would choose those lines to head up a chapter on Christological imagery. But for CW, lust and nakedness were part of his Romantic Theology and thus fitting emblems for our Lord. I shudder to think what his wife made of that idea, especially later when she found out he was in love with another woman.

In any case, Christian Symbolism is an odd, funny, intriguing little book. I’d be fascinated to know what a visual artist would make of it and whether its discussions of visual symbolism are at all useful in that field. As far as a sample of CW’s domestic arrangements, I think it creates more mysteries than it solves.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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12 Responses to Christian Symbolism

  1. Fascinating! Based on this eclectic content, I don’t think Baker Books or Crossway is going to release “Charles Williams’ on Art” study any time soon. Which may be a shame – we’ve seen so many bland “CS Lewis and the Arts/Tolkien and the Arts/Inklings and the Arts” books for mass audiences, it would be nice to see someone wreck that curve.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oo, that makes me wonder if there’s enough content for a book on CW and art. I don’t know if there is. His near-sightedness made him unlikely to spend much time on visual art. There might be enough material for an article??

      Liked by 1 person

      • megmoseman says:

        I certainly would think so! CW’s descriptions of Jonathan’s paintings in All Hallows Eve are some of my favorite passages in his writing. There’s probably something to be said about Tarot, even though I don’t recall detailed descriptions of the cards in The Greater Trumps. And maybe this is stretching, but his use of imagery in general strikes me as iconographic. He often isolates and calls our attention to strange juxtapositions of static or almost static visual images that are heavily symbolic — I am thinking of things like Simon le Clerc carried away in the bloody rose of rain in sunrise, the all the gold and porphyry of Byzantium, the way that Virgil poised to begin writing somehow IS Taliessin poised to bring his household into battle, Palomides on sacred geometry and the triangle of Iseult’s arm…

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I think I’ve read something about the details in The Greater Trumps showing Williams was innovating in distinction from the Rider-Waite pack to imagine his unique ‘original pack’ (and table) …

          I searched quite awhile in works on excavated Roman(-British) mosaics to see if I could find an original for the one in ‘Taliessin in the School of the Poets’ – without success.

          And there are the murals in ‘The Last Voyage’…

          I think you are right that Williams often makes a very visual effect – and perhaps this frequently involves original play with existing iconography… something worth pondering further, in any case!

          Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Williams’s asking someone with more art-history knowledge about what sort of portrait Bor might have had of Elayne, historically, as he was working on a new (never-finished) poem came to mind – perhaps an interesting cross-point in Williams’s attention to art, to ‘period details’, and his willingness to play with anachronism to which Sørina has attended.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for this – it is good to make it more widely known!

    It is interesting that at least two of Uncle Charles’s – J. Charles Wall’s -own books are available scanned in the Internet Archive (Shrines of the British Saints (1905) at least 4 times, while Relics of the Passion (1910) has also been reissued not so long ago in paperback – though what is listed there as his Devils (1904) turns out to be a scan of Christopher Wordworth’s 1849 edition of The Apocalypse!) – with many another listed in the WorldCat (though I have not checked to see just how many have been scanned with what accessibility). And it would be interesting to know more about both his publishing history (with various publishers) and that of Talbot – and about the relations within the families – beyond the glimpses we have been variously given. For example, how encouraging were the members on that side of the family to Charles Williams’s interests, and how encouragiing to Florence and Charles as a writing couple? And, how much of a Blake fan was – or wasn’t – Florence in her own right? (Curious that Charles Williams did not give evidence of delighting in the name ‘Florence’, given his love of Dante and of the image of the City’!)

    A few years ago I tried to look into how easy or otherwise it would be to get Christian Symbolism reprinted, but it turned out to be quite complicated because of it being published in the name Michal Williams and what rights Florence had bestowed on their son Michael, and he in turn in his will (if I recall correctly) – which is sad, as I remember enjoying it a lot – and this post tells of all sorts of interesting things I did not remember! Anyone within reach of a British Deposit Library – or other library with a copy to which the WorldCat might direct you – might enjoy having a look…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Orth says:

    I have to say that Christian folks like CW, who sometimes seem a little dangerous and edgy, who make wild and wooly connections between heaven and earth, who passover familar language and thinking for something more like a Sword of the Spirit … these folks have a role in keeping me coming back to the church and expecting (and sometimes witnessing) the raw, the mysterious, and expansive.

    As an artist, I always perk up when images, rather than familiar formulas, are employed to ground us in these wisdom traditions. If stones would cry out when we have lost our voices, then of course all of nature would cry out, too. CW must have been familar with the hermetic art of Robert Fludd. Some of those diagrams lodge in my brain and resonate in my chest much better than another sermon – and much more readily outlline the complex, craft-like chemistry behind all the fractured theological formulas – formulas which sometimes seem more calculated to shut down “error” than shock us out of our stupor.

    I’m especially interested in, presumably brief and secret, moments when some new image of transformational theodicy simply appears to us out of the “ordinary” (even sketchy) structures of life (goats, nakedness, tarot cards, and all). It’s interesting that in Tibetan Buddhist art you will find crosses and Stars of David – as if there is something structural in the transformational space between heaven and hell that cannot be suppressed or kept safely within boundaries. CW was on to that big time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. J Bailey says:

    Interesting to hear that you considered CW & Michal’s marriage as “rather cold and distant.” I was just reading The Arthurian Torso and in it C.S. Lewis describes their marriage as “brilliantly happy”. (This is from a passage which deals with Taliessin’s Song of the Unicorn, which you posted about earlier. It is an interesting analysis and might be worth linking in.) Obviously both things may have been true at different times! Even – oddly – at the same time… Perhaps CW’s “infidelities” (at least of heart & mind) never quite extinguished his love for Michal.

    In today’s “cancel culture” there is a tendency to denigrate the work of any person in whom we find a character flaw – as if there existed someone without flaws. As I discover more about this complex person – in part through your most interesting blog – I’m struck by the fact that CW’s writing remains intensely meaningful to me despite my knowledge of his humanity.

    There is this rather amusing quote from St. Teresa of Avila (The Interior Castle): “David was very holy, yet you know what Solomon became.” It is of course knowledge of the personal life of David that makes this humorous. Yet notwithstanding I understand the important difference between the two men, and perhaps this helps me understand how I feel about CW. I don’t turn in disgust from the 23rd Psalm because David was a murderous adulterer…


    • Yes, these are very important points. Thank you for sharing them. I tend not to believe C.S. Lewis, because he had no idea what he was talking about! He didn’t see into the dark stuff CW was into. I guess I base my idea of their marriage on several hints, none of which are definitive:
      – “The Silver Stair,” dedicated to Florence soon after they met, is about CW’s feeling that he was called to celibacy
      – they were engaged for 9 years before getting married
      – they only had one son in a time when contraception was not readily available
      – CW was in love with Jones for most of his married life
      – Florence said she wanted a divorce when she found out about Phyllis
      – they lived apart for the last 6 years of their lives.


  5. Charlie says:

    There are many such books on Christian symbolism, mostly Catholic. Interestingly (to me anyway) the symbol often used for Christ was a lamb with a banner and a golden cross at the top somewhat supported by a “silver stair.”


  6. Pingback: Inklings and Shapeshifters: Charles Williams’ Theology and Paul Schrader’s Cat People – Fellowship & Fairydust

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