Interpreting Symbols and Creating Your Own Meanings
The following image was sent to me by a oneClimbs reader. The request was to help interpret the symbols on her ward meetinghouse steeple. I decided to reply to her in the form of a full post since the information might be helpful to others as well.
First, I want to point out that every symbol, motif, design, or architectural nuance may NOT have a specific meaning; designs may be chosen simply because they look nice.
Now before you get disappointed, I want to try and explain another way that a knowledge of symbolism can turn what may be ordinary into a meaningful or even revelatory experience.
There is a reason that there isn’t some manual of symbols somewhere. I was even hesitant to create something like ldsSymbols.com but it was a single phrase I learned from Val Brinkerhoff that opened my eyes so to speak: “potential meaning.”
I learned from David Littlefield’s Mormon Mysticism:
Americans think in a mostly one dimensional, logical, and linear way. We don’t process hieroglyphics well.
We do process algebra well because we can move through a problem in a logical way. We have verities, or things that don’t change. We can hang our hat on them. Then we have variables. They change, but the change is a calculation of hard facts.
Those new to the gospel can choke on the smallest of parables. When Jesus is telling those men on the shore to come follow Him, and that He would make them fishers of men, the question follows, is he speaking of fishing or some other thing? After a little time in the gospel, one begins to traverse parables with skill.”
People think every symbol should be mean something, that you could be able to see this and know that it means that.
When God wants to say something, he says it, “Thou shalt not steal” but when he wants to say potentially infinite things, he uses symbols.
Every symbol you see is like the letters of an alphabet, alone they are meaningless, you need the context of several letters together to create the context of a word. When you have a word you can mix and rearrange them to create a variety of sentences and communicate infinite ideas using just 26 letters. Letters and words have “potential meaning.”
You don’t need an overall context to get meaning from any kind of symbol or object. Lehi looked out at a valley and a river and asked his sons to be like them and take on their characteristics.
And when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying: O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!
And he also spake unto Lemuel: O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!1 Nephi 2:9-10
Lehi was able to observe elements of nature and apply principles he already understood to them in order to inspire his children.
There is no reason we couldn’t do the same observing a crack in the sidewalk, the petals of a flower, or the designs on a building.
Anything around us can become a vehicle for pondering and meditation, for inspiration, learning, and a way to be taught by the Spirit.
Once we begin to learn certain things about how God has used certain numbers, shapes, symbols, parables, etc. we can apply that knowledge to practically anything around us for a private exercise.
This doesn’t mean that we go around saying, “This MEANS that.” It’s like observing a piece of art and drawing personal meaning that is relevant to you even though it may mean something different to another.
Now that we have laid this foundation of understanding, I’ll give a little demonstration as to how I would personally do this in examining this particular steeple.
I know nothing of the history of this particular design, however, I do know a little something about the meaning behind the archetype of a steeple.
Steeples and features like them have been around since recorded history. Take a moment and read a little about the significance of why a building would have a steeple in the first place:
“The axis mundi (also cosmic axis, world axis, world pillar, center of the world, world tree), in certain beliefs and philosophies, is the world center, or the connection between Heaven and Earth. As the celestial pole and geographic pole, it expresses a point of connection between sky and earth where the four compass directions meet. At this point travel and correspondence is made between higher and lower realms. Communication from lower realms may ascend to higher ones and blessings from higher realms may descend to lower ones and be disseminated to all. The spot functions as the omphalos (navel), the world’s point of beginning. The image relates to the center of the earth (perhaps like an umbilical providing nourishment). It may have the form of a natural object (a mountain, a tree, a vine, a stalk, a column of smoke or fire) or a product of human manufacture (a staff, a tower, a ladder, a staircase, a maypole, a cross, a steeple, a rope, a totem pole, a pillar, a spire). Its proximity to heaven may carry implications that are chiefly religious (pagoda, temple mount, minaret, church) or secular (obelisk, lighthouse, rocket, skyscraper). The image appears in religious and secular contexts. The axis mundi symbol may be found in cultures utilizing shamanic practices or animist belief systems, in major world religions, and in technologically advanced “urban centers”. In Mircea Eliade’s opinion, “Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all.”via Wikipedia (source)
We understand that the steeple may potentially represent a connection between heaven and earth.
Even the great pyramids follow this pattern, a square base (4) going up to a single point (1). The number 4 is related to the earth and 1 to heaven. Thus a simple square-based steeple going up to a point is a basic expression of this transition from heaven to earth.
The steeple we are examining also has this pattern implied with its square base. You’ll notice four rectangles one each of the four sides of the base which only serves to further emphasize the number four. They could also be just simple decorative elements, but for the sake of meditation and spiritual exercise, we will draw from ancient archetypes and apply our own personal significance.
Theology teaches us of a journey that goes on between earth and heaven. Religious teachings seek to help their people bridge the gap between heaven and earth.
In Christianity, Jesus Christ is the mediator between heaven and earth or God and men.
“For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;”1 Timothy 2:5
In the middle of our steeple, there are at least 3 significant elements that I can identify that have potential doctrinal connections that are theologically significant to what Latter-day Saints and many other Christians believe about Jesus Christ as the mediator between heaven and earth.
- The number 8
- The sun cross
- The 4 Pillars
The number 8
You’ll notice the 8 segmented grid that appears on each side of the steeple. The number 8 can be found on many Latter-day Saint chapels and temples. I’ll provide just one quote about the number 8, but you can read more here.
“The octagon draws on the symbolism of the number eight, emblematic of renewal. Eight-sided forms were felt to mediate between the symbolism of the square, representing earthly existence, and the circle (standing for heaven or eternity).”Jack Tresidder, “Symbols and Their Meanings,” 154
The number 8 is pervasive throughout scripture dealing with themes of rebirth and renewal which is appropriate for a building where people are baptized (if it has a font) and partake of the sacrament.
The sun cross
Above that is what can be called a sun cross, solar cross, or wheel cross. This is a very ancient symbol and was used to represent the sun, although today it is the solar symbol for the earth. It has meant many things to many people throughout time.
Whenever I face a conundrum like this, I look at the numbers behind the shapes and then look at the configuration. We have a circle and a cross which gives us numbers 1 and 4.
Numerically, sun cross symbol is very similar to this symbol:
When you take the numbers 1 and 4 and make them into a single motif you are implying that they are merging creating the number 5. You could just put a pentagon there but overlaying 1 and 4 gives us more detail. What we are seeing here is heaven and earth merging to form the number 5 which “is the number of life in scripture and in nature.” (Val Brinkerhoff, “The Day Star: Reading Sacred Architecture” (Book 1), 172)
Above the number 8 which can convey rebirth and renewal, we have life and perhaps eternal life or spiritual life.
The 4 Pillars
Our story continues as we observe the four pillars that frame these potential ideas that we have discussed thus far. A tent or roof-like structure contains the elements below and four pillars frame the whole.
Pillars are rich with meaning which you can read more about here, but in general, they can convey the themes of witnesses and covenants.
We make covenants at church through baptism, and we witness to God that we are willing to keep his commandments and remember his Son with the sacrament.
The pillars could convey the idea that covenants are involved in this process of rebirth and renewal and in order to obtain life eternal. The steeple is potentially communicating that this building is a place devoted to these things.
I can’t see the rest of the steeple but I’m pretty sure it goes up to a point and there may be a circular ball at the top which is common. The steeple points upward into the heavens, the final destination of those with a pure heart and real intent who are reborn and renewed through the gospel as taught by Jesus Christ’s church.
I hope this analysis has been helpful and again I stress that my interpretations here are not cracking open some great mystery. I am simply applying what I already know to a piece of architecture while drawing from the context of the building it rests on.
The principles here can be applied to more than just buildings, you can learn about symbols and their potential meanings from many sources, chiefly, the scriptures.
You can ponder the world around you and create sacred spaces and meanings any time and anywhere. It is a valuable exercise and one that can help you open your mind to the teachings and influence of the Spirit, especially when you read the scriptures or enter spaces where the symbols are intentionally put there to teach.