Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Do souls have wings?

Commenting on Aristotle's De Anima, Charles Singer writes [1]:

Breathing is the most obvious sign of life, and when a man ceases to breathe we know he is dead. So from breath the word psyche came to mean life, then the principle of life, and then the soul or again the mind. It is interesting to observe that in other ancient languages, as for instance Hebrew and Latin, the word for soul or life has gone through exactly the same history, being gradually changed from its original meaning of breath. A part of the story of this word is told for us in the Bible where we read in the book of Genesis 'And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul'.

As people acquired a soul by being alive, followers of the Judaeo-Christian tradition believe(d) that the soul left the body when breathing stopped at the time of death. There are references to this in the Bible [2]:

But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave.. (Psalm 49 verse 15)

O Lord, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave.. (Psalm 30 verse 3)

For thou hast delivered my soul from death.. (Psalm 56 verse 13)

The soul, being a component of each individual, was regarded as a record of a person's life, and it was this on which we are judged, going either to Heaven or to Hell, as the following reference in the Bible implies [2]:

And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal (Matthew 25 verse 46)

The concept of the soul has become elaborated in Christianity by the addition of doctrine. For example, Catholics believe that a state of purgatory exists, where souls eventually destined for Heaven undergo a period of purification in readiness for entry. The question then arises of how are souls to be illustrated in religious art works, such an essential part of the decoration of churches and other places of worship, especially in the Catholic tradition? 

I was reminded of this question during a recent visit to Granada. Although the magnificent Alhambra, with its fine examples of Islamic architecture and decoration, was one of the main attractions, I was drawn to a painting by Juan Sánchez Cotán in the Museum of Fine Arts in the Palacio de Carlos V and also some reconstructed wall paintings by unknown artists in the 16th Century Convent of Santa Paula (now part of the Palacio Santa Paula Hotel). Cotán became a monk and his religious paintings were completed for his monastery, the one that had caught my eye was of the Annunciation (above), completed at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The key figures are God, The Virgin, The Holy Spirit (in the conventional form of a dove) and the Archangel Gabriel (clearly with bird wings, although their attachment is hidden). In Heaven there are winged cherubim (although there is no record in the Bible of them looking like babies, and the wings of cherubim must be large [cf. 3]), and some winged heads, others being seen to the left, in the cloud below God. I take these to be souls rather than parts of cherubim and those in the cloud may be in purgatory and waiting their opportunity to enter Heaven. It is possible that they are cherubim that have had their modesty protected by not appearing naked, but it will be noted that the winged heads (souls) have their wings located at the front, while the cherubim have theirs on the back, as is conventional in the portrayal of all types of angels. 

Not all the winged heads in the Santa Paula Convent wall paintings have the attractive appearance of babies seen in other paintings (a selection is shown above), but the motif is the same. It is probably of long standing as in The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, we read [4]:

When I recall these days of my noviciate I understand how far I was from perfection, and the memory of certain things makes me laugh. How good God has been, to have trained my soul and given it wings.

The language may well be figurative rather than literal, but St. Thérèse is a very influential figure in Catholicism and her description conveys meaning to the images of winged souls seen in paintings of earlier eras. If they are not winged souls what do they represent? Why paint whole cherubim and, additionally, just their heads, but with a rather different point of attachment for the wings? It remains a mystery and, together with the conventional form of winged angels seen in paintings and sculpture, something that stimulates the imagination of the beholder.

[1] Charles Singer (1931) A Short History of Biology. Oxford, The Clarendon Press.

[2] Authorised King James version of the Holy Bible (accessed through

[3] Exodus 25 verse 20 and Exodus 37 verse 9 in the Authorised King James version of the Holy Bible (accessed through

[4] Chapter 9 in The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Monday, 12 October 2015

Fungi and Art

As a student of Zoology and Botany in the 1960s, much time in practical classes was spent making drawings; either of dissected animals, or of preparations of plants made by sectioning and staining. This was a practice little changed from the heyday of Natural History during the Nineteenth Century.

One of the great illustrators of that period was Philip Henry Gosse, and his son, Edmund, described his zealous approach [1]:

I have often known him return, exhausted, from collecting on the shore, with some delicate and unique creature secured in a phial. The nature of the little rarity would be such as to threaten it with death within an hour or two, even under the gentlest form of captivity. Anxiously eyeing it, my father would march off with it to his study, and, not waiting to change his uncomfortable clothes, soaked perhaps in sea-water, but adroitly mounting the captive on a glass plate under the microscope, would immediately prepare an elaborate coloured drawing, careless of the claims of dinner or the need of rest. His touch with the pencil was rapid, fine, and exquisitely accurate.

Unfortunately, my efforts were nowhere near the equal of those produced by Henry Gosse and his meticulous illustrations resulted from talent, practice and the training that he received as a boy from his father, a professional painter of miniatures. Edmund describes Henry's work as having: distance, no breadth of tone, no perspective; but a miraculous exactitude in rendering shades of colour and minute peculiarities of form and marking. In late years he was accustomed to make a kind of patchwork quilt of each full-page illustration, collecting as many individual forms as he wished to present, each separately coloured and cut out, and then gummed into its place on the general plate, upon which a background of rocks, sand, and seaweeds was then washed in. This secured extreme accuracy, no doubt, but did not improve the artistic effect, and therefore, to non-scientific observers, his earlier groups of coloured illustrations give more pleasure than the later.

I have been fortunate to see some of Gosse's original work [2] and it certainly commands admiration. For Henry Gosse, illustrations (an example of which is shown above) were for a purpose other than art, although he painted watercolours of landscapes during old age, purely for his own interest.

Students today must find it strange that we spent so much time drawing, and Gosse may well have appreciated the digital techniques available now for capturing images, whether in situ, or by using light, or electron, microscopes. Although I accept that my draughtsmanship is poor, and I lack the tenacity and endurance of Henry Gosse, I do enjoy creating something "artistic" from Natural History. One of the more successful attempts comes from collecting fungi and making spore prints (three examples being given below). Although the fungi lose their lustre rapidly, spore prints can be preserved using artist's fixative and they provide a pleasing record of solitary walks in local fields and woods [3].

[1] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Noah's Ark – a likely story?

It is a steep climb up to the Alhambra in Granada, so, on a recent visit, I was pleased for the break provided by an exhibition of giant photographs alongside the path. The images were of mountains from around the World and each had a caption in both Spanish and English. 

One of the photographs was of Mount Ararat and the English translation of the caption, together with the picture, is shown above. It said:

Mount Ararat 5137 m, 39° 42' 10" N, 44° 18' 01" E (Turkey). The highest point in Turkey is a huge stratovolcano very near the border of Armenia, where it is highly symbolic. Its place among sacred mountains comes from the Book of Genesis, which says that it was here that Noah's Ark landed after the Great Flood. Even though that has not been proven scientifically, the link between this peak and the Holy Scriptures is now unbreakable.

What interested me most about the caption to the photograph was the last sentence. How can the presence of Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat be proven scientifically? What would one look for: pieces of ancient wood remaining in clefts in the rock that could be carbon-dated? Of course, it is most improbable that any evidence of the presence of the Ark will ever be found and Wolfgang Kaehler, who wrote the caption, must be aware of that. He must also be aware that the "unbreakable" link between Ararat and the Ark is a result of the repetition of a single statement in The Bible. This is the quote from Genesis Chapter 8 Verse 4 (Authorised Version of the King James' Bible): "And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat."

What would a scientist make of the rest of the story of Noah's Ark and the Great Flood, as given in the Book of Genesis (some verses omitted)? [1]:

I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repententh me that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.. ..And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.. ..And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die. But with thee I will establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons' wives with thee. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female.

From this, we know therefore that the ark was 114-156 metres long, 19 – 26 metres wide, and 11 – 16 metres high. Its construction would have been a formidable challenge, even for a team of boat builders, and many people must have been curious as to why Noah had decided to create such a huge craft. It could hardly have been a secret shared only between Noah and his immediate family. As to the likely passengers, there would not be enough room for two of all species of terrestrial creatures (if this was to be based on species) and what about those creatures that do not have male and female forms? As God had created microorganisms, protists, simple plants and invertebrates, it is not known whether these were to be saved, and "every living thing of all flesh" is difficult to interpret.

Just before the flood [2]:

..Noah went in, and his sons, and his wife and his sons' wives with him, into the ark, because of the waters of the flood.. ..In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.. ..and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth. And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.. ..And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man: all in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground.. ..And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.

Here, we have clarification that "every living substance" remaining on Earth failed to survive the flood, with the inundation lasting nearly five months. There is still no information about which of the "living substances" were taken on board the ark, but the removal of all humans, other that Noah and his offspring, means that we must all have descended from this lineage. Noah's great age seems typical for the time, his ancestors dying when they were 777 – 969 years old, having fathered children at the ages of 65 – 187 [3]. Clearly, there was a different life span in those days, or the Biblical account of age cannot be trusted. Evidence points to the latter, with an increasing life expectancy over the past thousand years that is unlikely to have been bettered in ancient times. Very few people now live to be more than 110 years old and to father children at an age of 150+ is unheard of. Clearly, Biblical references to time must be viewed with suspicion.

Another question that arises from the account in Genesis is what happened to aquatic organisms. The volume of fresh water that appeared from the rains (but where did these come from in such massive volumes) would allow survival of many creatures that lived in rivers and lakes, but those inhabiting marine shores would have been badly affected by the reduction in salinity. As waves and storm events only affect the very surface waters of oceans, and the fresh water of the Great Flood would "float" on the salty sea water, it is likely that most marine organisms, other than those confined to surface waters, survived the flood, although no mention is made of this. For those who believe in evolution, life began in the sea, so there was the opportunity of re-colonising terrestrial habitats once the flood had abated, although the time to achieve the current diversity is impossibly short – it would take hundreds of millions of years – and the only explanation acceptable to those who take the Bible to be true, is that re-colonisation was by the survivors from the ark.

The story of Noah's Ark seems highly improbable, but that does not rule out the possibility that there was a large-scale flood at the time. In an earlier article [4], I proposed that the chronology of the Ten Plagues of Egypt could be explained by unusual climatic conditions and there have undoubtedly been periods of the Earth's history when there were dramatically volatile meteorological events, especially after asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other massive upheavals. Perhaps the flooding at the time of Noah resulted from one of these?

[1] Genesis Chapter 6 Verses 7,8,13-19 Authorised Version of the King James' Bible (

[2] Genesis Chapter 7 Verses 7,11,12,17-19,21-24 Authorised Version of the King James' Bible (

[3] Genesis Chapter 5 Authorised Version of the King James' Bible (