The Symbolism of the Altar Book, part I

The Altar Book
From the Providence Journal, September 17, 1922:

“When Daniel Berkeley Updike went from the desk of the Athenaeum Library to learn the trade of printing at the Riverside Press, he took with him a definite ambition, high ideals, the good wishes of a few men and women of very sound judgment, and an intimate friendship. The friend [Harold Brown], when Mr. Updike started his own Merrymount Press in 1893, could easily have paid all the bills but if he had done this, the experiment begun by this press would have lacked all its significance. Instead of doing this, he gave the support of enthusiastic confidence and personal co-operation in the undertaking, sharing in the consideration of all its plans and helping to decide on all doubtful problems until his untimely death [1900]. It was much more than his money that carried through to a triumphant issue the Merrymount’s first, and still one of its most notable, achievements, the Altar Book, finished at Easter AD 1896 by Daniel Berkeley Updike and Harold Brown.

Updike set the type at the Merrymount Press in Boston, and 350 copies were printed by De Vinne (New York) in red and black on handmade paper. Illustrated by Robert Anning Bell within borders designed by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (who also designed the woodcut initials), the Altar Book was hailed on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Martin Hutner, “this was the work which, at the height of the excitement generated by the Arts and Crafts movement in both America and Europe, gave Updike an international reputation at the age of thirty-six.”

The following words by Updike appear on four typewritten pages, initialed “D.B.U.” in Updike’s hand, in Harold Brown’s copy at the John Carter Brown Library:

Symbolism of the Decorations of the Altar Book

The symbolism of the Altar Book is as follows:

On the title-page is a coat of arms engraved by Sherborn, of London, with the following motto beneath it: “There is a river the streams of which make glad the city of God, Alleluia! Making holy the tabernacles of the most High. Alleluia! Alleluia!” Above is a motto, “Behold the Lamb of God.” The lamb is represented on the shield standing on a mount, from which four streams issue through the walls of a city. The river and the lamb are typical of the two parts of the Sacrament. The shield is surmounted by a mitre of the English shape, and on one side is an archiepiscopal cross and on the other a shepherd’s crook.

An elaborate system of symbolism is carried out throughout the entire book. The pictures for the festivals of Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Whitsun Day and Trinity are devoted to representations of the mysteries which these days commemorate.

The first picture is of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, which was the Old Testament type of the Crucifixion. This verse is upon a scroll beneath it, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” This is typical of the healing which the Isrealites found in looking at the lifted serpent for material ill, as the Christian finds healing for spiritual evil in the lifting up of our Lord.

The borders for the festivals contain symbolism in but two cases—those for Easter and for Christmas. For Christmas owls, bats and moles are introduced into the design, typical of the blindness of the Old dispensation, and on scrolls are introduced the names, first of the four patriarchs, Adam, Abraham, Moses and David; the four major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, David and Ezekiel; and the five Sybils, as representing the groping of Pagan antiquity toward righteousness. The same names of sybils were chosen by Michael Angelo for his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
For the Easter border are introduced peacocks, which are the symbols of the Resurrection. As antitheses to the three groups of names in the Christmas border, are introduced three groups of persons, in the New Dispensation, namely, the four doctors, Saint Athanasius, Saint Augustine, Saint Chrysostom, and Saint Jerome; the four Evangelists; and Saint Mary, the Virgin, Saint Mary, wife of Cleopas, and Saint Mary Magdalene, as types of Christian womanhood.
The large initials beginning the collect for each Sunday have upon them shields, the shields bearing a Latin word and a symbol indicative of the season in which the Sunday occurs, for instance, the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Sundays in Advent have from time immemorial been devoted to the consideration of the four last things, Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.

On shields hung upon the initials for these Sundays—for the first Sunday is a trumpet, with the word, “Death;” the second, “Judgment,” with a lantern, which is indirectly a reference, too, to the collect, which is upon the use of the Holy Scriptures, and which is reminiscent of the phrase in the Psalms, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet;” on the third, “Heaven,” with the figure of a cock, symbolical of watchfulness; and on the fourth, “Hell,” with a rising sun, indicative of the coming of Christ at Christmas. [to be continued]…

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3 thoughts on “The Symbolism of the Altar Book, part I

  1. The first time I read this post, I understood the first paragraph to be from the 1922 Providence Journal, the second and third paragraphs to be the blogger’s words (Martin Hutner, for example, cannot be a 1922 reference), and the remainder to be a transcription of the found document.

    When I look again, I am not so sure. Punctuation does not make that explicit, certainly. Was I right? The other possibility which occurred to me was that the document was discovered in 1922 and that it is quoted from the newspaper.)

    (It just happens that I am preparing an issue of the Caxtonian with an article by Jerry Meyer about Medievalism in bookmaking around 1900, and I was planning to mention the discovery of the found document.)

  2. There are two quotes–one from the ProJo article, and the other from a typed document found (as stated, now in RED) in the JCB’s copy, which was Harold Brown’s copy. I cannnot guarantee the accuracy of the ProJo article–I am only quoting it.

  3. Pingback: The Altar Book II « Printers

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