Saturday, March 20, 2010

Aucamville Project 4: Triangulating the center

They say every French town or village has its center, a plaza where three important elements are to be found: the mairie (town hall), the church and the café, the centers of political, religious and social life, respectively. In Aucamville, where the "town square"--in this case a triangle--once stood, this holds true, despite the fact that the plaza has been replaced by a departmental highway which cuts the town in two. What was true in the past has disappeared, but the focal points remain clustered together.

Aucamville also has three municipal wells. One of these is right next to the mairie, surrounded by a pair of trees in front of which stands an imposing crucifix.

In Journey to the Center of the Earth we spoke of the idea of stones as representing both the limits of sacred spaces and as their center. We spoke of the axis mundi which Wikipedia describes thusly:

"The image expresses a point of connection between sky and earth where the four compass directions meet. At this point travel and correspondence is made between higher and lower realms."

This notion apparently comes from an essay entitled 'Symbolism of the Centre' in Images and Symbols by one Mircea Eliade.

The axis mundi concept spans many cultures and is expressed in many ways. We looked at stones, last time, but it may have been more appropriate to speak of trees.

We'd like to take a look at the Christian context in order to bring it to bear more fully on our local spring.

One locale proposed for the center of the world is the Garden of Eden, with four rivers going out into the four directions of the world. This brings to mind the Cross, of course, as does the very notion of the axis mundi proposed by Eliade: "where the four compass directions meet." At the center of the center stand two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This brings us back nicely to the idea of twin pillars we have discussed so often on LoS. In I ♥ Phoenicia, we quoted the Jewish Virtual Encyclopedia, which tells us that some scholars have suggested the pillars of Jachin and Boaz "had a mythological significance, as "trees of life," or cosmic pillars...."

Again, according to Wikipedia:

Eastern Orthodox Church has traditionally understood the tree of life in Genesis as a prefiguration of the Cross...."


"The cross of Christ is also referred to as the tree of life, and in the service books, Jesus is sometimes likened to a "divine cluster" of grapes hanging on the "Tree of the Cross" from which all partake in
Holy Communion."

Some scholars believe the two trees were actually one tree; others note that they are manifestations of the world tree archetype found, like the axis mundi, among many diverse cultures.

Again (sorry), Wikipedia:

"Living cross. One of two possibilities: Either a natural cross made of living vines and branches. Or, a man-made cross with vines or plants planted at its base. In the all-natural version, it refers to the legend that Jesus' cross was made from the
Tree of Life. In the man-made cross with plants planted at the base, it contrasts the "new" Tree of Life (the cross) with the Book of Genesis Tree of Life. In both cases it shows Jesus' death (the cross) as a redemption for original sin (Tree of Life)."

In southern France, one can see crosses clearly alluding to this all over the place; in Aucamville alone, a relatively small town, there are many roadside crosses which are more or less trellises upon which a riot of flowers grow. Recall our post on Notre Dame des Aubets, which is a blatant celebration of floral and vegetal motifs and is the site of an ancient spring. Santa Héléna, a local folk saint, seems to be entombed in a baldaquin of flowers. John the Baptist is honored in an Aucamville chapel which again, featured a healing spring.

Recall if you will the idea the four rivers flowed from the center of the Garden of Eden, where these trees (or tree) stood. Obviously, there was a spring there, or, as they say in French a source.

Now think again of Aucamville; the center of town, triangulated if you will by the mairie, the church and the café, is marked by a crucifix, or representation of the Tree of Life. This in turn serves to mark the spot of the central municipal well.

If there is the Tree of Life, reinforced by the crucifix, perhaps there is also the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Its counterpart would then be the well, the source of water, in this case, sanctified. The Tree of Knowledge is generally considered to represent the reason for original sin. Water baptism is said to be a cleansing, perhaps a symbolic mirror of Christ's death and resurrection. Catholics believe it frees us from the taint of....original sin.

Heady symbolism in the town triangle, for such a avowedly secular state. Ritual cleansing has roots in various mystery religions and is practiced by Catholics each time they enter a church and Muslims before prayer. At the Kaaba, towards which they pray, there is also a sacred spring.

Back to the crucifix:

"....Christ's death was a perfect sacrifice that destroyed the power of sin, and therefore death, over humanity. Particular significance is offered to the lance wound from which flowed blood and water. The blood is linked with the Eucharistic blood received at Masses and the water with the cleansing of original sin at baptism (the two sacraments believed to be necessary to achieve eternal life). "

So symbolically, the two trees are inextricably linked. One necessitated the other. Two pillars set before a theological space, markers of a doctrine. The crucifix and the spring. What else can you see in the picture?

Two trees.

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