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Ram bas-relief

This stone bas-relief in our church shows a ram, a traditional symbol in the Judeo-Christian faith as well as in classical mythology and worldwide folklore. Below it is a Latin quotation from St. Ambrose: Arietis crispor clemens sed fortis. This translates roughly as “He who curled the ram is gentle but strong,” which is puzzling at first but makes perfect sense in a historical context. In the early days of Christianity, the attributes of God were often explained through parallels in nature, partly because of nature’s familiarity to worshippers of the time and partly because of the belief that God revealed Himself through His creations. Perhaps the best-known example today is St. Patrick’s use of the shamrock to teach that God is simultaneously one yet threefold.

As with the shamrock, these natural parallels were especially useful in explaining contrasting attributes that simultaneously exist within God. The above quotation is part of a commentary by St. Ambrose in which he uses the paradoxical properties of various animals to illustrate paradoxical properties of God. The curled wool of the ram was the softest substance known to antiquity, while the curled horn of the ram was famous for its strength and hardness. That these opposing qualities existed side-by-side in the same animal helped illustrate that they could likewise exist side-by-side in an infinitely powerful yet infinitely merciful God.

As a note on the lesser-known word crispor, it’s related to the adjective crispus meaning “curled” or “curly” but should not be mistaken as a synonym of the etymologically related English word “crispy.” The agentive form used here would have been crispator in classical Latin (“one who curls,” from the transitive verb crispare meaning “to curl”), but in the early medieval Latin of St. Ambrose’s time, the -ator ending had begun to be shortened to the -or ending. This gradual shift in early medieval Latin explains the missing -at- in many English words of Latin agentive origin, such as Latin imperator becoming English “emperor.”

As a personal story about the above bas-relief, six or seven years ago a visitor taking photographs in our church became entranced by it and stared at it for at least an hour. His name was Matthew, which I remember only because I encouraged him to view our bas-relief of St. Matthew, but he was uninterested in that. After an hour or so, he stood up excitedly and announced that he had just thought of something that would “save the world,” though he rushed out before explaining further. I never saw him again, but it just goes to show that everyone is welcome to visit our church, no matter how zany they may be.

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