Walking into Waltham Abbey, near London, the visitor is overwhelmed by the detailed ceiling. However, it contains a feature not often found in a Christian Church, i.e. the Signs of the Zodiac, which are often associated with fortune telling; nevertheless they do symbolise some aspects of the Christian faith.
The constellations have intrigued mankind since antiquity. The early astronomers noticed that 12 of the constellations seemed to form a band or zodiac round the sky, and that the sunrise appeared to follow that path, rising month by month in each of the 12 constellations in turn. It begins at the spring equinox in the constellation of Aries; hence each sign became a symbol of its month.
The Christian Church used the symbols of the Zodiac, giving them a deeper theological and Christian meaning, in order to give good pictorial reminders to the masses. It is, of course, appropriate that the Zodiac is located in the ceiling of Waltham Abbey as, in the symbolism of church buildings, the ceiling represents Heaven.
The Waltham Abbey zodiac ceiling was designed by Williams Burges and executed in the 1860s as part of a pictorial scheme about Time. The pattern of the ceiling was based on the 13th century nave ceiling of Peterborough Cathedral; Burges made use of medieval Christian symbolism in his design.
The Zodiac signs, with their Christian meaning, are:
Aries the Ram represents the Creative Force, i.e. God himself. The accompanying labour is pruning, representing the cutting away of evil to bring new life to the soul.
Taurus the Bull represents the Creation of Heaven and Earth. It would be easy for people who live by farming to visualise a ram and a bull as symbols of creative energy. The Labour is spinning, a creative occupation, and also an old symbol of the tuning Universe.
Gemini the Twins symbolise Christ in His dual natures as God and man, one wearing green for eternal life and the other grey, symbolising death and resurrection. The Labour is picking flowers, symbolic of the flowering of God’s plan, and also of the Virgin, for the Sun enters Gemini at the end of May, i.e. her month.
Cancer the Crab symbolises the creation of the moon and sea-life. The Labour is weeding, removing evil from our lives and from the world.
Leo the Lion represents the creation of the sun and of life on the land. The Labour is harvesting, cutting the corn, a symbol of dying in order to be reborn, and gathering the ‘good seed’ to make the Bread which represents the body of Christ.
Virgo the Virgin symbolises the creation of Mankind. As she is also the Mother of Christ (Theotokos), she reminds us of His humanity, holding the symbol of Justice, since she is our mediator. The labour is the grape harvest, from which comes wine, symbolising the Blood of Christ.
Libra the Scales symbolises the essence of Mankind, balanced between good and evil, the natural and the spiritual and able to tip either way. The piper in the Labour represents mankind’s creative abilities.
Scorpio the Scorpion is symbolic of death and resurrection, since the creature habitually buries itself in the sand. It is also, according to mediaeval belief, the only creature other than Mankind which sometimes chooses to destroy itself, and so is a symbol of mankind’s freedom of choice between good and evil, life and death. The Labour drawing wine, reminds us of our hope of redemption through the shedding of Christ’s Blood.
Sagittarius the Archer represents the whole man with his animal and spiritual natures. The arrow symbolises his control over his own direction. The Labour of cutting wood is another symbol of dying to be born again.
Capricorn the Goat is half animal, half fish. It symbolises the nature of mankind, weighed down by sin, yet able to be redeemed, for the fish is a symbol of Christ. The Labour shows a man sitting by a fire, resting in the dead of winter, representing the dead awaiting resurrection. There is usually a loaf on the table in the depictions of the Labour, representing the Bread of the Eucharist.
Aquarius the Water-carrier shows the symbol of rebirth to a new life through baptism and the washing away of sin. The Labour is ploughing, preparing the soil to receive the seed of the Knowledge of God.
Pisces the Fishes. The fish is one of the oldest Christian symbols, representing Christ. The two fish remind us of his two natures. He is the way and the life, the successful conclusion of Mankind’s journey back to God, standing in the Zodiac at the end of the year and the beginning of another. The Labour is sowing, setting the seed that will bring the harvest.