Where inner light shines
The gilding of the lily
The picture was taken in a chapel of the Cathedral Church in Sheffield, an ornate nineteenth century building based upon a fourteenth century design. After the Reformation, when the Church of England split from Rome in 1534, Catholicism remained outlawed until the eighteenth century. When it became once more possible to worship openly, the Cathedral Church was built, with much colour and gilding, yet for us, the most interesting thing we found there was a series of depictions of the Stations of the Cross that gave birth to a series of esoteric interpretations of their hidden symbolism.
The Madonna lily is a symbol of Mary, the mother of Jesus, herself symbolic of all that is pure and humble. It seems odd that in so many churches, both her statues and her symbols are often gilded… yet gold has ever been a symbol of both the visible sun and the incorruptable purity of an inner light. Long before Christianity came into being, the Egyptians and other ancient cultures prized gold for its untarnishable brightness, associating it with the sun.
In Greek mythology, the lily was born from the milk that flowed to earth from the breast of Hera, wife of the great god Zeus. The milk that flowed heavenward became the Milky Way. Yet it is Aphrodite who gave the flower its pistil. The French royal symbol, the fleur de lys, may be based upon the flower, said to have grown from the tears shed by Eve as she left Eden and the lily, symbol of both royalty and divinity, given by the Virgin to Clovis at his christening.
The origin of the phrase ‘to gild the lily’ is open to debate. The earliest reference seems to be a misquote from Shakespeare’s King John:
Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
With its beauty, fragrance and such a rich symbolism, the lily hardly seems to need the additional help of art.