When is a zodiac not a zodiac?

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Despite the orgy of events, conferences and exhibitions earlier in the year to mark the centenary of William Morris' death, Morris actually died 100 years ago this month. One of his relatives explained her dislike of the youthful Morris with the observation that he "seems to see nothing and he observes everything". Both this comment and Alice's mystification about the raven and writing desk came to mind recently while on a pilgrimage to Waltham Abbey, where the youthful Morris rode out to escape from home in nearby Walthamstow.

This Norman church owes its origins to an Anglo-Saxon carpenter who was told in a dream to climb a hill and dig. Obeying this ghostly command, he uncovered a huge black crucifix, a bell and a book. He loaded them on to a cart, but the oxen refused to budge until the name "Waltham" was mentioned. Well, it could have been Neasden. Later Harold Godwinson, the original Eurosceptic, paused here for prayer on his way to meet William the Conqueror. The black Abbey crucifix, credited with having healed Harold of paralysis, this time bowed its head and refused to look at him. Quite understandably, this was regarded as boding ill. Until Henry VIII's divorce mania put an end to all such papist folly, Waltham Abbey continued to be regarded as a healing shrine.

With such a history of magical association, one would think present-day visitors could take a Victorian ceiling painted with large signs of the Zodiac in their stride. Yet the first thing to catch my eye in the crypt bookshop was an exculpatory pamphlet about the Christian symbolism of the Zodiac. Since zodiacal representations (as well as mathematical astronomy) originated with the pagan Babylonians, this was news to me. The Abbey's guide insists: "visitors who imagine something occult behind the Signs of the Zodiac are disappointed to hear that these are no more than a representation of the months of the year, as seen by the ancients in the night sky".

It scarcely seems necessary in these post-modern times to dissociate Christianity so completely from these romantically posed figures and charming animals who appear in churches, shrines and temples throughout the world. Waltham Abbey's ceiling, though Victorian, was based on an earlier one in Peterborough cathedral. Many Romanesque churches throughout Europe, as well as Gothic cathedrals like Chartres, display zodiacal figures in stone or stained glass.

Since the borders of Waltham's ceiling also display representations of the months, reducing the Zodiac to mere time-keeping argues an unconvincing duplication on the part of sophisticated master builders. After all, early Christianity's strength often lay in co-opting pagan elements. Earlier that day, two evangelical visitors had stormed out after spotting the Zodiac ceiling. The nice woman in the crypt was on the verge of tears, complaining, "we told them it only represented the months of the year, but they dldn't believe us'." As a worshipper of medieval antiquities, William Morris would not have approved.