Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Symbolism of the Bas-Relief Sculptures of a Pelican and a Phoenix Over the Entrance Doorways to the Saint Joan of Arc Church Harrowgate Philadelphia

                                                                                                                                                      Google Street Map

From childhood I always wondered why there were sculptures of birds and not saints over the doorways of my church in Philly. Nobody seemed to know. Nobody wanted to ask.

Just two doorways as an entrance. One left and one right. The two door configuration seemed to work alright but I always thought not very symmetrical when a bishop came for Confirmation or the May Procession proceeded through one door or the other and not a central third door.

The Priest who founded Saint Joan of Arc seemed to be of very moderate Protestant tastes in that he was born in Wales, educated in London, Canada and Wisconsin before becoming an Episcopalian priest at the turn of the last century.

The Church is a very simple early Romanesque with little adornment or fancy stained glass.  The one rather chic addition to the interior was a dozen mosaics about four foot in circular medallions in between round Roman arches. These Icon style mosaics of the twelve Apostles have backgrounds of gold backed glass mosaic tiles. Impressive if you focus on them but rarely notice them as they are so high up. 

At this point in time I am speculating and going on some historic research and oral tradition that these twelve Apostles Mosaics are recycled from an historic lineage downtown church of St. James once located at 22nd and Walnut Streets and by the Philadelphia artist Nicola D’Ascencio more famous for this stained glass than his mosaics.

The altar area of Saint Joan’s is also a rather plain sparse area. Even the unmarried Jesus is clean shaven on the Cross there. 

I have also further speculated at this point in time that the altar and altar screen of that defunct Episcopal Church of St. James may have also been on a wish list of Monsignor Edwards Hawks as he built his dream church to cap a career of writing, lecturing and converting to the RC church from the Episcopal early in his career. 

The altar and altar screen of St. James remained in storage until after Msgr. Hawks’s death and was sold to another Episcopal church in the suburbs. Have to wonder if it is one thing to sell iconic mosaics to a Catholic church but maybe the idea of an altar and altar screen was a bit too ecumenical for the times in the middle 1950s.

Back to the doorways. And the decorative bas-reliefs of a Pelican in a nest feeding its young over the left front door and a Phoenix rising from ashes above the right side door.

Having done some cursory research, I see no major issues in dogma regarding RC church design and the use of left and right. There is a distinction in that the left hand side of the church is called the pulpit and or gospel side in terms of the reading of sacred text. The right hand side is referred to the as the lectern and or epistle side of the church and of course refers to the reading of lesser sacred text from that side. 

Also of note, the left side is the pulpit side where the priest reads the gospel aloud and the right hand side is considered more the lay side in that the laity many times read the epistles rather than a priest.

Also from tradition, the bride and groom side of the church is left to right with any reason lost in history. And as a child the children’s mass at 9:00 AM on Sunday morning had the girls side on the left and the boys on the right. 

Secular and or pagan traditions put the left side as the female side and the right side as the masculine side. So too with ancient non-Christian or pre-Christian tradition has the female side associated with the moon and the male side associated with the symbol of the sun.

With all this minor background, I found that the Pelican is a basic Christian symbol of Charity and loosely based on the sacrifice of a parent to feed its young.

Better than that:
Elizabeth I of England adopted the symbol, portraying herself as the "mother of the Church of England". Nicholas Hilliard painted the Pelican Portrait in around 1573, now owned by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. A pelican feeding her young is depicted in an oval panel at the bottom of the title page of the first (1611) edition of the King James Bible. ~~~ - “Pelican” – Wikipedia

Pelican Detail of Above Portrait

The Phoenix has a long cultural basis going back to ancient times and even before the Greek and Romans to the Egyptians to the Bennu bird as part of Egyptian god mythology and a creature representing rebirth for the dead, a creature that came into its own being at or as part of the first creation scenario and as a symbol of the sun.

In a way the Egyptians worshiped or honored the Bennu bird as a symbol of the everyday sun dying at night and being reborn each morning.

Other cultures have the whys and wherefores of the Phoenix bird in slightly different capacities and in lengths of time in terms of the cycles of a Phoenix’s never ending life. 

The Romans used the Phoenix on their coins to symbolize the supposed indestructibility of their empire.

The Pelican and Phoenix above Saint Joan's doorways are of course framed within a triangle, symbolic of the Christian Trinity and the three fold purpose of one God.

So, in short I believe that Msgr. Hawks put a piece of his life history into the stone of Saint Joan of Arc Church in Harrowgate. 

First with the Pelican as his beginning in the Episcopal church, American offshoot of the Church of England after the American Revolution with England, and second with a Phoenix rising out the ashes of his old life as an Episcopalian priest and his rebirth as a RC priest. 


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