Redesigning a Symbol of Faith

(Ed. note: In this issue we will begin to regularly feature articles from our AIGA Journal archives dating back over two decades. Given the recent visibility of religious symbols and in a time of multi-cultural communication, we have selected a piece from a 1985 (Vol. 3, No. 4) issue about Rhode Island designer Malcolm Grear's new mark for the Presbyterian Church. Given the sanctity of such signs and symbols, this was a highly charged commission heaped with tradition, yet made totally modern. The mark and the story hold up even today.)

Being one of the most recognizable and emotionally charged symbols in the world, it is inconceivable that design improvements could be made upon the cross. However, since it represents many contrasting theologies and ideologies, it has various meanings for different peoples. While it generally symbolizes the sacrifice and love of Jesus Christ, the martyr, historically it represents the faith and rebellion of the early Christians. But its strength is such that it has also provoked more menacing ideas: for example, when emblazoned on the robes and banners of the crusaders, it marked a bloody brotherhood feared by an Islamic enemy, and when carried by the Spanish conquistadors, it wed faith to fear. In our own times, it has been worn on the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, signifying power for some and hatred and ignorance for most others. Yet despite its perverse misappropriations, the cross has, for almost two millennia, remained true to its original meaning, and is the unifying mark for diverse groups and denominations.

Two years ago, Malcolm Grear, principal of Malcolm Grear Designers of Providence, Rhode Island, was commissioned by one of these denominations, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), to redesign its symbol. A difficult task at best. Simply designing a mark for a corporation is a weighty proposition, since for an indefinite period it must embody and communicate the positive qualities endemic to that institution. So to redesign a symbol that derives from such sanctified history is even more problematic.

Design was not Grear's only challenge, for he was required to address the complex theological and organizational needs of the client. A client, it must be added, for whom the symbol is more than a manifestation of an all-powerful faith, but also a tribute to reunification. It is here that the design process is inexorably wed to the history of symbolism and, hence, all communications.

For centuries, imagery and symbolism were the primary means for expressing Christian faith in the West, particularly to a largely illiterate population. As John M. Mulder, president of Presbyterian Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, states: “The central act of Christian worship—the mass—was conducted in a language unintelligible to virtually the entire congregation, and its power lay more in the visual imagery and symbolism of sacrificial love than its verbal persuasiveness of divine grace.” With the Protestant Reformation, a significant theological revolution took place in the sixteenth century that had far-reaching implications on the way a segment of the church communicated its faith. “The Reformation shattered the synthesis of art and Christianity,” says Mulder, “and undermined the Christian confidence in symbols as reliable ways of embodying or stating Christian truth.” Protestants wanted to regain the purity of the New Testament, and doing so attacked the perceived corruption embodied in medieval Catholicism. The Protestant movement became violently iconoclastic: It chose to literally interpret the symbolism of the Bible—and, hence, live precisely by the Word. The Commandments say that one must revere God alone and not make graven images. For the future of Christian imagery, this had devastating effects. In its zealousness, the movement sometimes destroyed much of the beauty of Christian art.

The invention of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into an accessible language encouraged fealty to the word. “As people of the book, Protestants became obsessed with the Word and with words,” says Mulder, “and at its worst their obsession became woodenly literalistic, robbing Christianity of both mystery and beauty.” Even music was shunned by the devout. It finally took Horace Bushnell, hailed as the father of Christian education in America in the nineteenth century, to espouse the belief that even words had symbolic manifestations. As Mulder points out: “To drain language of its symbolic content destroyed its capacity to communicate meaning and truth.” During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, movement was afoot to reform Protestant understanding of imagery and symbolism in relation to all of Christianity. For some groups, there was a return to a Catholic tradition, as seen in the neo-Gothic revivalist churches being built in urban areas.

“The undermining of the iconoclastic tradition in Protestantism and the recovery of the power of symbolism,” notes Mulder, “can be seen during the 1890s when southern Presbyterians cautiously moved toward developing a seal for their church, the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUS).” It was adopted in 1891, but because of the pervasive distrust of symbolism, was not formally approved until 1956. At the same time in the north, the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. (PCUSA) developed its own seal, and the third wing of this split denomination, the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA) created its own, too. These early uses of reapplied symbolism were literalistic, with a visual emphasis on the Calvinistic concern for the authority of scripture. These seals, then, were highly “verbal” In fact, many of the early marks avoided the prominence of the cross in order to veer away from any connection to the Roman Catholic tradition.

In 1958, a major event occurred that markedly altered accepted thinking: the PCUSA united with the UPCNA to form the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and developed a seal to announce the event. In 1983 this new group and the PCUS reunited after 122 years of division caused by the Civil War and perpetuated by years of philosophical differences to become the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). At this time, a designer was commissioned to create an interim seal until a task force could recommend a permanent one.

Out of 40 designers considered, the permanent commission came to Malcolm Grear Designers. Grear sought counsel from Dr. Martha Gregor T. Goethals, art historian and head of the graduate program at the Rhode Island School of Design, who consulted on theology and advised as to symbolic hierarchy. The basic motifs, unanimously decided upon by a task force of nine people, are the cross, Scripture, the dove and flames. The dominant element is, of course, the cross, representing the love of God and the resurrection. The Celtic cross without the orb was the original model that was modified and streamlined as the design process proceeded and in the end came to look more like a Tao cross. As the design progressed, each element—the open book, flying dove and flame—was rhythmically and symmetrically ordered. Grear soon realized that “it was not enough to have a series of parts arranged in a nice design order. In theological terms, the symbolism is multi-meaningful. For example, the descending dove (the spirit) and the book (the word) take on new meaning in terms of their proximity (the spirit and the word). If these two were touching, the meaning would be less correct and would lose much of its present import.”

The content of the symbol is its strength. It has overt meanings as described above, and more subtle ones, such as the relationship of the flame to Moses and the burning bush, and the body of the bird being similar to the shape of a fish, an early symbol of Christianity. Mulder also points to a serendipitous quality of the three-fold nature of the cross representing the unity of the three divergent theological groups. However, the significance of the mark is summed up by Goethals in remarks made upon presentation to the task force: “While theologians, educators and artists have fashioned it, persons who reflect upon it will find special, individual meanings. Visual symbols have a unique evocative power. A symbol invites persons to relate their own experiences to it. Thus, symbols generate ambiguity, complexity, and multiple meanings whenever the religious imagination is directed toward them.” The mark was unanimously accepted by a congress of over 2000 church members, and is now being fashioned for use on everything from stone facades to letterheads. And so the mark itself has become a part of visual history.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more.