A Winter’s Tale of Curves and Shells

Volume 49, Issue 4, by Michael J. Crosbie

My strongest memory of visiting Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston is the sheer breadth of the apse in which the chancel resides amid glowing gold-colored walls.. It is a great sweep of a curve that generously yet gently arcs from one side of the sanctuary to the other—it is an architecture of embrace. The swing of this bowed apse takes you in its arms, holds you there beneath its seven arched stained-glass windows, and makes you feel welcome. The apse is like open arms closing in to hug you in total acceptance. Every time I visit Trinity, it is as if I am back in the arms of an old friend.

This memory of Richardson’s church was evoked by recently reading Gaston Bachelard’s magnificent book The Poetics of Space, in which he considers the role of daydreaming in shaping our perceptions of the spaces in which we play out our lives. Bachelard speculates on the emotional content of geometry, specifically the curve. He writes: “It is a poetic fact that a dreamer can write of a curve that it is warm,” adding that the French philosopher Henri Bergson attributed grace to curves and inflexibility to straight lines. “Why is it worse for us to say,” asks Bachelard, “that an angle is cold and a curve warm? That the curve welcomes us and the oversharp angle rejects us? That the angle is masculine and the curve feminine?” The grace of the curve is an invitation to remain, he notes. “We cannot break away from it without hoping to return. For the beloved curve has nest-like powers; it incites us to possession, it is a curved ‘corner,’ inhabited geometry.”

In a recent visit to an exquisitely detailed 1920s chapel in the Lansing-Reilly Jesuit Community at the University of Detroit Mercy, I found another curve, actually a generous arch surrounding the rarados fresco. As I moved closer to see it, I realized that the arch vaulting over the fresco was made of ceramic tiles each in the concave shape of a shell: a curve composed of many smaller curves. Shells appear in the decoration of many Christian churches, but what do they symbolize? Bachelard had the answer. The shell is a symbol of the resurrection (this might be why shells are often used in the Christian sacrament of baptism to pour water over the head). Bachelard quotes from Louis Charbonneaux-Lassay’s book on religious symbolism, The Bestiary of Christ, that shells symbolized the human in total, body and soul. Within the shell the soul resides.

But what is the connection to resurrection? Charbonneaux-Lassay writes: “At the gloomy time of year, when Winter’s death holds earth in its grip, the small snail plunges deep into the ground, shuts itself up inside its shell, as though in a coffin, by means of a strong, limestone epiphragm, until Spring comes and sings Easter Hallelujahs over its grave…. Then it tears down its wall and reappears in broad daylight, full of life.” Bachelard goes on to say that nearly 300 snail shells were found surrounding a body buried in an ancient coffin in France—an expression of the resurrection hope. He concludes: “A lost symbolism begins to collect dreams again.”

Is it just coincidence that many sacred places employ the curve, with its “nest-like” powers to welcome us, hold us, protect us, console us?

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at mcrosbie@faithandform.com.

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