Some Observations on Louis Charbonneau-Lassay’s “The Vulnerary of Christ”
The Vulnerary of Christ-The Mysterious Emblems of the Wounds in the Body and Heart of Jesus Christ has recently been published after a near century of being lost. For its rediscovery, reconstitution and publication we are indebted to Gauthier Pierozak, a French researcher who rescued Charbonneau-Lassay’s archives from obscurity—itself a fascinating story that can be found in the introduction. The book is an exposition of the symbolism of the wounds sustained by the Saviour in His Passion in Christian art. It is beautifully and copiously illustrated, principally by magnificent woodcuts engraved—with just a pocket knife—by the author, French Christian scholar Louis Charbonneau-Lassay (1871-1946). Some of his illustrations are reproduced here.
Infinite observations no doubt more astute than the ones below could be made about the material in the book by those more qualified to do so. I should nevertheless like to hint at the possibilities by making some elementary observations on the symbolism of Christ’s crucifixion and His wounds in the hopes these will encourage everyone to read the book and expand and improve upon them. I am grateful to Gauthier Pierozak for his kind provision of the illustrations reproduced here and for his advice and suggestions. Any errors or heresies however are mine alone and neither Charbonneau-Lassay’s or Pierozak’s.
According to the New Testament, during the passion, Christ was wounded principally in five places—His hands, feet and His side—and variously from his scourging. From these wounds flowed His blood and, in the case of the wound in His side, blood and water. What we discover early on in The Vulnerary, documented with numerous archeological examples, is that a discrete tradition, going as far back as early Christian times, has transmitted through the veil of symbolism the belief that when Roman soldier Longinus pierced Christ’s side, the spear also penetrated the Savior’s heart and wounded it internally. Therefore, the true and hidden source of the blood and water pouring from Jesus’ side after His passing was His wounded heart. This subject—that precedes by centuries the more modern devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus which was established in the 17th century, after the French nun Margaret-Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) had visions of Jesus revealing his wounded heart to her—is the focus of the first few chapters of the Vulnerary and the author shows some beautiful emblems that are worth noting, such as the extraordinary cup containing the red stone, from the Inner Star (Estoile Internelle) Christian medieval organization with the same name, symbolizing the congealed blood of Christ that was recovered during the crucifixion.
THE HEART OF CHRIST, THE SYMBOL OF THE CENTRE AND THE RETURN TO THE PRINCIPLE
From a theological perspective, the mystery of the Body of Christ relates more directly to the Incarnation, while that of the Blood of Christ relates more to the Redemption. The Vulnerary is a book about the latter. Christ, before becoming flesh, was the Verb, the Logos, the Word (John), the centre, from which the universe expanded in all directions when God said, “Let there be light”. Because the creation is an expression in multiplicity of God’s infinity via the Verb, when this Verb also becomes flesh in Jesus Christ, it nonetheless remains divine within and therefore the body of Christ can symbolize the sum of all creation in the form of a man. Likewise, the Passion on the Cross is the return of the Verb to God. The body of Christ—the Corpus Christi—becomes the “crucial point” where the return of the created to the Principle-Origin takes place. This is because everything that happens to His Body and everything that is accomplished by it, happens to the entire cosmos and is accomplished for it. His death on the cross was fitting, right, and inevitable for the redemption of the whole universe: which, as Thomas Aquinas notes, led Gregory of Nyssa to observe that “the shape of the cross extending out into four extremes from their central point of contact denotes the power and the providence diffused everywhere of Him who hung upon it.” 1 Just as in Eden (“the mountain of God” Ezekiel, 28:13-28:14) the Tree of Life is in the midst of the garden (and therefore analogously at the summit) and, it might be inferred, collocated with a spring—the source of the river that, according to Genesis, went out of Eden and was parted into four heads which flowed down the mountain and watered Eden, so also was Christ transfixed to a tree of sorts in the form of the Cross, on the prominence of Golgotha and from Him flowed His redemptive blood, referred to in The Vulnerary as the Springs of The Saviour. In the crucifixion we can therefore see the Cross as analogous to the Tree of Life and Christ as the Fountain of Life and His blood, flowing down Golgotha’s slopes, as the rivers of Paradise.
In addition to the analogy between the Cross and the Tree of Life, the Cross, as mentioned earlier, can also be viewed symbolically as showing the centre and the origin. We may view the usual four-pointed cross as the two-dimensional, and the Chrismon or six-pointed cross as its three-dimensional, representation. In the latter are three lines, in two planes intersecting at ninety degrees and pointing in six opposite directions: up, down, left, right, forward, and backward. Just as the two-dimensional cross may be contained within a circumference that connects its four points, the three-dimensional cross is similarly described by a sphere. The six visible rays may be understood in numerous ways, for example as the polar, solstitial and equinoctial axes, but common to all interpretations is the fact that they are the manifestations of the centre which is their unifying point and the principle of the formation. Being without dimensions, and thus symbolizing the unmanifested, this principle cannot be visually represented and can only be alluded to.
The 3-dimensional cross (top) and the monogram of Christ (bottom).
The Alpha and Omega letters often associated with the monogram of Christ make reference to the unmanifested centre that is the Verb: it is both point of origin (Incarnation) and point of return (Redemption)… (Source: unpublished archives of Charbonneau-Lassay).
This centre is the seventh ray of the cross, the source, and analogous to the seventh day of Creation—a return to the principle. Not only is the six-pointed cross the monogram of Christ but when we look at His body on the cross, this point of origin at the intersection is correctly the same point where His heart is and oftentimes so shown. Indeed, His heart is sometimes shown crucified thusly without His body being shown at all. It need not be emphasized that the heart is commonly understood to represent the centre of the Being.
This notion of the return to the principle can be seen in Christ ascending to the summit of Golgotha and put on the cross to redeem the world as analogous to Him returning to the summit of Paradise where the tree of life is. And to quote Christian philosopher and metaphysician Jean Borella: “in the mystery of the shed blood, it is the divine life of this body, life hitherto hidden, which flows over creation and delivers it from itself by deifying it.” 2 Longinus’ spear, by piercing the heart at the centre of Jesus’s mortal body, opens the divine gate to redemption that was within Jesus. Borella continues: “The body communicates the real presence to that which is ephemeral; blood, by its sacrificial act, redeems the ephemeral and delivers it from its finitude by absorbing it into the Infinite” 3, which is unmanifested and symbolized by this Centre of the World. The open and sacred heart of Jesus thus becomes the point where the divine connects with the finite, and redeems it through the sacrificial blood.
By virtue of Christ’s mysterious identity with the cosmos, it is the entire world, and by extension the universe, that is virtually reintegrated into its eternal origin when His heart is pierced. On this subject Charbonneau-Lassay writes one of his most mysterious and insightful chapters in The Vulnerary, introducing an emblem pertaining to the Redemption of the entire universe: the symbol of the Triple Precinct.
(It is also of interest when reprising our consideration of the analogies between the garden of Eden and the crucifixion: we may notice that this schematic is suggestive of a map or plan showing Eden with its four rivers arising in the centre and flowing outward. The centre being analogous to the summit, we may readily imagine this flat plan as a cone or pyramid of sorts.) Charbonneau-Lassay explains that these concentric areas symbolize, from the outer to the inner: the terrestrial, astronomical and divine—a hierarchical schematic. The cross, which has its intersection and origin in the centre of the divine precinct, extends across the outer two in a symbol of the redemptive power of His sacrifice over all. One can thus see that the blood that flows over the world operates a true cosmic baptism, because it is the revelation of the mystery of celestial life springing from the very Heart of God to bring all things back to it. The presence of water in the blood which flows from the pierced heart has a theological significance because it indicates an essential identity between the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit: this blood is another name and another form of the Holy Spirit and its outpouring carries out the sending of the Paraclete on the world, which will bring everything back to the Father. This is why it is written: “The Blood of Christ was offered to God by his eternal Spirit” (Hebrews 9:14). By presenting His pierced Body to the Father, the “Word made flesh” offers God a synthetic and anthropomorphic image of the universe. And this brings us to another facet of Charbonneau-Lassay’s work.
CHRIST, SYMBOL OF THE INFINITE
That Christ is symbolized by so diverse a range of things is central to Charbonneau-Lassay’s work: the universal and infinite nature of Christ means that He is reflected in all Creation and symbols of Him can be found everywhere in it—in plants, animals and minerals. This approach to the conundrum of describing that which is indescribable, of defining that which is infinite and therefore axiomatically impossible to define, differs from the apophatic theological solution of addressing the infinite in negative terms by describing that which it is not, in a germane manner. This apophatic approach can be seen in the above discussion of the six-pointed cross where the six visible rays suggest the seventh. Charbonneau-Lassay’s universal approach is to be found also in his book The Bestiary of Christ, available now in English only in much abridged form and his unpublished works The Florary and The Lapidary of Christ which concern the symbolism of Christ in plants and minerals, respectively. Gauthier Pierozak has plans to publish all three of these other books in the future.
In The Vulnerary of Christ, Charbonneau-Lassay shows us also how we may symbolically see a tree as Christ Himself: the various species which yield gums and resins are wounded in their sides and these exudations, analogous to the blood and water issuing from the wound made by Longinus’ spear, are collected in vessels, just as Joseph of Arimathea used the cup from the last supper to collect the blood and water issuing from Christ’s side. And, just as Christ is the light and life of the world, these gums and resins collected from wounded trees were the sources of pitch for illumination and medicines and balms for healing.
In the Giotto illustration in the preceding section, showing Christ on the World Tree, we can see another symbol: that of the Pelican. The Pelican is situated here above Christ but can also itself symbolize Him. The Pelican symbolizes resurrecting redemption when, having slain his rebellious offspring, he returns three days later and, striking his breast to his heart with his bill, washes his dead children with his blood and thus brings them back to life. This symbol is known as the “Pelican in its Piety” and heraldically as a “vulning Pelican”.
Just as the Pelican, as an emblem of redemption, symbolizes Christ, so too does the better-known Lamb, as a symbol of His sacrifice. Although not to my knowledge portrayed explicitly as crucified, the lamb is frequently shown on the cross or in proximity to an anchor by way of reference to the cross in early Christianity. Below is shown a common theme of the Lamb in its glory with a nimbus, wounded to its heart and the blood and water collected in a chalice.
PREFIGURATIONS OF CHRIST IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
I have mentioned multiple times that the Incarnation of the Christ-Logos is the anthropomorphic manifestation of the infinity of God through the indefinity of creation. But even though He became flesh when born of Mary, the early Fathers of the Church, and theologians, have searched for evidence of Jesus Christ’s presence in the Old Testament, pre-Incarnation. And did they find some! Similar to the way the legend of Jesus’ heart, wounded by the spear of the Roman soldier, preceded the modern devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus by the Church, the Old Testament is full of what theologians call “prefigurations” of Christ. I shall mention a couple to conclude this article. These examples were provided to me by Gauthier Pierozak, who is currently working on The Lapidary of Christ, referred to above.
In Numbers, as Moses was guiding the Israelites through the desert, and there was no water to drink nor food to eat, God instructed Moses to gather the community in front of a rock and to hit the rock. “Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.” (Numbers 20:11).
This rock from which, once wounded, a spring comes was seen by saint Paul as a prefiguration of Christ in 1 Corinthians 10:4 “for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.”
Another significant prefiguration of Christ is found in the Bronze Snake of Numbers 21. The Israelites were now attacked by venomous snakes. Moses prayed for the people, and God told him to make a snake and put it on a pole, that anyone who was bitten might look upon it and live. So, in following this prescription, Moses fashioned a bronze snake, and it was efficacious (Numbers 21:6-9). This episode of the Old Testament was represented by various emblems reported by Charbonneau-Lassay in his Bestiary of Christ. The most interesting aspect here is that the snake is usually associated with Satan and the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve. However, symbols can have a multitude of meanings given the context, and Charbonneau-Lassay has shown that the snake has been used in ancient times also to symbolize Christ. In this instance, the color of bronze metal recalls the red blood shed on the cross. Therefore, the red snake on the pole symbolizes the crucified Christ and the healing attained by it concurrently suggests a return to the principle—in this case to the primordial, Edenic state before God put enmity between the serpent and humans as a consequence of their disobedience. Of further interest is the representation of the amphisbaena in medieval bestiaries, a mythical animal represented by a snake with two heads. This enigmatic symbol becomes very clear once one sees that the red snake is the Redemptor, which cleanses humanity of the original sin associated with the Satan-snake, which is represented by the second head.
I hope these few examples and observations have demonstrated the significant importance of The Vulnerary of Christ and commend it to those of us interested in deepening our understanding of the symbols associated with the crucifixion and the various wounds that Christ received during His Passion.
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- Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiæ. www.newadvent.org https://www.newadvent.org/summa/4046.htm#article4 referring to Gregory, of Nyssa, Saint. The Catechetical Oration of Gregory of Nyssa, Chapter xxxii at p.114. Cambridge University Press, 1903 https://archive.org/details/thecatecheticalo00greguoft/page/114/mode/2up
- Borella, Jean. Les Plaies du Christ, at p. 66. Etudes Traditionnelles, 1978. https://archive.org/details/Etudestraditionnelles/TudesTraditionnelles1978/page/n33/mode/2up
- Ibid, pp.66-67.