Review: The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art & Architecture

9780199680276_450Peter and Linda Murray, and Tom Devonshire Jones, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art & Architecture, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, xii + 654 pp., £35.00/$60.00 cloth.

In this expanded, 2nd edition, Tom Devonshire Jones has breathed new life into what was already an excellent resource from Peter and Linda Murray. It’s the sort of book that belongs on most everyone’s shelf, but sadly sturdy reference works such as these often struggle to find a home outside the library or scholar’s study.

I was reminded of its value when researching, of all things, birds, the phoenix in particular. And so I grabbed this review copy from my shelf and looked it up.

birds, symbolic Like animals and fish, birds have been used to carry symbolic meanings, Christian and otherwise. From pre-Christian times birds have symbolized the human soul, and many generalized birds appear in Early Christian art, especially on sarcophagi.  Some birds, however, have specific connotations (sometimes contradictory) and many derive from the fanciful interpretations in the *Bestiaries.

The peacock, pelican, and phoenix are all unequivocally good. The peacock and phoenix are symbols of immortality, since the ancients believed that the flesh of the peacock was incorruptible.  They appear frequently in Early Christian mosaics.  The phoenix was well known to renew itself by building its own funeral pyre and rising, three days later, from its own ashes, and is therefore a symbol of the Resurrection.[pp. 64-65]

This is but one example of the many I might cite to make a simple point: This is a book you will use for life. And unlike Wikipedia, it’s information that you can trust, and cite! But even for those who find themselves far from academia (and thus concerns having to do with citation), this is a book that might still be read with profit, whether systematically, a bit each day, or more sporadically, as the need arises.

Review by Christopher R. Brewer


  • Christopher R. Brewer (PhD, St Andrews) is a Program Officer of the Templeton Religion Trust, Nassau, The Bahamas. He has edited or co-edited six volumes, including Art that Tells the Story which was named one of Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2011. He is now working on a book for Zondervan Academic provisionally titled Understanding Natural Theology, and an additional edited volume (for Routledge). His current research has mostly to do with questions at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and contemporary visual art, but also includes Anglican ecumenism.

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