In This Sign

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If I say “pottery show,” chances are good you think of form and color: whimsical mugs on a shelf, maybe, or the elegant curve of a well-made vase. Images of 4th century monasticism probably don’t spring instantly to mind. I wouldn’t connect the two either, apart from friendship.

But my longtime roommate Becca is a potter, and I study the early church. For a couple of years now, we’ve worked together on her shows—hammering out concepts in conversation and layering her clay-craft and my writing. Typically, our collaborations start with one zany idea. This time it was Becca’s.

“You know how bowls look like inverted shields? I’m picturing a medieval hall decorated with heraldic shields, but they’re all serving bowls.”

It was a promising riff on swords into plowshares. As we talked, it turned into an inversion of the emperor Constantine’s story as well. Go back in time with me for just a second: in 312 AD, Constantine was marching to battle his rival for possession of Rome. Around noon he saw a cross of light in the sky above the sun, and he heard a voice saying, “In this sign conquer.” So Constantine made a cross out of gilded spears. His soldiers inscribed the symbol on their shields. Then Constantine defeated his enemy, successfully launching his own empire and the fraught entanglement of cross and sword.

Back to 2021. Becca and I wanted to tell the story of a different power, and in the hour after midnight we searched our knowledge of Christian symbols for images of self-giving instead of conquest. The pelican that wounds herself to feed her young. The seed that dies into life. The apple tree.

“The apple tree?”

And here is that other elusive link between pottery shows and 4th century monasticism: the Song of Songs. Strange as it sounds, the Song was the favored text of monks and nuns. They read it as a drama between Christ and the Church or Christ and the soul. In their hands, that riot of images turned the whole Bible into a poem. 

“As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my kinsman among the sons,” the Song goes, and theologians hear the music of Incarnation. The apple tree shares woodiness with the trees of the thicket—Christ bears our nature completely, without sin—and like the apple among thorns, he overflows our darkness with sweet, lifegiving fruit. Our whole life of desire is meant to lead to that tree. To see it is to behold the life of Jesus: the place we learn gentleness and forgiveness of enemies, where self-control and longsuffering teach love for even those who do harm. 

I didn’t have my early church bookson hand that night, but I must have managed a half-coherent summary because the tree made the list. Then Becca and I remembered that neither of us can draw.

Fortunately, our friend Deirdre can. When she called to ask if she could do anything for the show, Becca appointed her Chief of Heraldry. It was an excellent appointment. Within twenty-four hours, she was sending us texts of shield shapes, meaningful color combinations, and Ogham signs for trees and their symbolic properties.

The curve of the shield signals the wisdom of a king and the hazelnuts in the bowl's border stand for divine wisdom. Taken together with the apple tree, they spell out the head-spinning logic that God became flesh and the king died in his subjects' stead.

Leah McMichael

The apple tree was the first of her sketches, I think. And I know you’re supposed to let the art speak for itself, but we’re in the world of heraldry where everything means something by rules older than our own. I feel compelled to let you know that the curve of the shield signals the wisdom of a king and the hazelnuts in the bowl’s border stand for divine wisdom. Taken together with the apple tree, they spell out the head-spinning logic that God became flesh and the king died in his subjects’ stead. Such is the wisdom that confounds the wise. It slips through the hands of emperors and makes nonsense of all spear-wrought crosses.

The hazel also nods to Lady Julian of Norwich, who saw the world as small as a hazelnut and still created, sustained, and held in the love of God. It’s a power Constantine had no category for: the Love that rules through self-giving and triumphs in descent.

In this sign, conquer.

[The apple tree and the larger series of heraldic bowls is part of the show “In This Sign,” which displayed in Indianapolis’s Harrison Gallery in August, and online at prakunpottery.com.]


1 Comment

  1. Kathryn Dougherty

    @kldougherty

    “And I know you’re supposed to let the art speak for itself, but we’re in the world of heraldry where everything means something by rules older than our own.”
    Thank you for explaining the meaning of this piece! I think it’s all the more powerful (and beautiful!) that you three collaborated on it.

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