In “Church Going”, the greatest poem about church-crawling ever written, Philip Larkin completely nailed architecture addicts like me. Wondering who would be the last to visit churches if Christianity ever died in Britain, he asks whether it be “one of the crew that tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were? Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique”.
I know what a rood-loft is – I thrill at the sight of one. I tap, I jot; I lust for church fittings. I interviewed the late Hugh Hefner 12 years ago, and I’m more excited about a Cotswolds wool church I’ve just seen in Northleach than I was chatting to Hef’s three pneumatic girlfriends, Holly, Bridget and Kendra. Still, after 30 years’ obsessive church-crawling, there are lots of things I don’t know about the inside of a church. Take this new book, The Brass Eagle Lecterns of England, by Marcus van der Meulen.
I knew that eagle lecterns were inspired by St John the Evangelist, whose symbol is an eagle. Because his Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the word,” it made sense to incorporate his eagle symbol into a lectern.
I also knew that the pelican – used for lecterns, too – was a symbol for Christ’s sacrifice, thanks to the altruistic story of it pecking its own breast to produce blood for its young.
There my knowledge about eagle lecterns ended. Van der Meulen’s book filled the enormous gap. Eagle lecterns were also popular because the mythical, double-headed eagle represented Christ’s twin nature, as human and divine; as King of Heaven and Earth.
As so often, Christian iconography has a classical foundation, too: the Greeks saw the eagle as a transformation of Zeus, king of the gods; the Romans used the eagle, wings outspread, as a symbol for victory.
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