A couple of friends recently approached me, four days apart, complaining of decorations recently added to the Keene Church sanctuary. Someone had placed two fleur-de-lis, separated by an arrangement of candles, on the organ console in the main sanctuary of the church. Both of my friends separately insisted that the fleur-de-lis is completely inappropriate for use as a church decoration in a Seventh-day Adventist Church. Both were very upset.
Fleur de lis is French for “flower of the lily” or simply “lily flower.” Being no Robert Langdon, I had no real notion of the symbolic meaning of the fleur-de-lis, other than that it is associated with France and, in a nod to the French origins of Louisiana, it is the logo of the New Orleans Saints NFL franchise. In 800 AD, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor, the pope reportedly presented the emperor with a blue banner spangled with golden fleurs-de-lis, thus beginning the long association between French royalty and the lily flower. But I didn't think my friends were such Francophobes that the fleur-de-lis' association with the kings of France would cause their distress. There must be more to it than that.
So I did some research. Not only does the fleur-de-lis pre-date the establishment of France, it goes back about far as you can go, to the first region permanently settled after the Flood: Sumer, in Mesopotamia. The fleur-de-lis symbol appears very early in Sumerian art; a Sumerian clay tablet portrays the fertility goddess Inanna (also known as Ishtar) flanked by two winged deities who are each crowned with the fleur-de-lis. Subsequent nations that inhabited Mesopotamia also used the fleur-de-lis. The Babylonian fish god Dagon is often depicted wearing helmet-like headgear with the fleur-de-lis on the top. (The priests of Dagon wore fish-head headgear that, over the centuries, evolved into the Mitre that bishops and popes still wear today.) There is also a Mesopotamian half man, half lion deity that is depicted wearing the helmet topped with the fleur-de-lis. Several Assyrian relief carvings show a winged deity wearing something like a helmet/ triple tiara topped with the fleur-de-lis.
The universality of the Fleur-de-lis is surprising. It can be found carved into Carthaginian breastplate armor, where it seems to grow out of the head of the god Baal-Hammon. (A Phoenician colony, Carthage had a religion that included child sacrifice, much like what prevailed in Canaan at the time of the Israelite conquest.) The Fleur-de-lis is also seen in pagan India; it appears on the crown of a Hindu deity, and on the doorway (next to two ferocious dragons) of the 16th-century Padmanabhaswamy Temple, located in Thiruvananthapuram, India. The symbol can be found in the statuary of the Maya; in both India and Pre-Columbian Meso-America, the Fleur-de-lis is often upside down. The Fleur-de-lis is found in Buddhism, for example in carvings of the “footprints of Buddha.” In numismatics, we find the fleur-de-lis on Greek and Roman coins.
Some may remember the edition of The Great Controversy published by Laymen for Religious Liberty, that, in addition to the standard text, has two inserts of color plates. The first plate section largely features pagan accoutrements and symbols that entered the Roman Catholic Church during the middle ages. I thought it might feature the fleur-de-lis, and sure enough it does. There is a photo of the fleur-de-lis on the head of a sculpture of Isis, the goddess of Egypt. There is also a photo of a relief carving from the palace of King Sargon II showing an Assyrian winged god wearing a tiara/helmet topped by the fleur-de-lis. Below those instances of pagan use, there is an illustration of the symbol's use in the Catholic Church: a gold-plated Fleur-de-lis above a two fingered occult hand signal.
Since the high middle ages, the fleur-de-lis has come to be associated with Mary and Marian worship. Images of Mary holding the flower appear in the 11th Century, on coins issued by cathedrals dedicated to Mary; it next shows up on the seals of cathedral chapters, beginning with Notre Dame de Paris in 1146. Mary was often portrayed as carrying the flower in her right hand, as shown in Notre Dame's “Virgin of Paris” statue, or holding a fleur-de-lis scepter in her right hand, as in the rose window above the north transept at the Chartres Cathedral. The fleur-de-lis is used repeatedly in the floor decorations of St. Peter's in Rome, including in the “Pontifex Maximus” crest.
So far, I have discussed where the fleur-de-lis is depicted, but not its symbolism. According to Catholic authorities, the fleur-de-lis is secondarily a symbol of the Trinity, and primarily a symbol of purity, befitting its close association with Mary, whom they believe (1) was conceived without taint of original sin, (2) was personally sinless and perpetually a virgin, and (3) is now reigning as the Queen of Heaven. But how likely is this purported symbolism, given that the fleur-de-lis originated in the pagan sun worship and fertility religions of the ancient world? Given its association with the original Queens of Heaven—Isis, Inanna, Astarte, Asherah, Anat, Hera—isn't it more probable that the fleur-de-lis symbolizes an aspect of fertility religion, to wit, the sexual joining of male and female?
We should note that Judah fell into the worship of the Queen of Heaven during the days of the prophet Jeremiah. (Jer. 7:18) Actually that's not quite correct; by Jeremiah's time the people had so long honored the Queen of Heaven—as had their ancestors, their kings and their officials—that this detestable practice had acquired the legitimacy of tradition (Jer. 44:15-28), which argues that false worship, syncretism, and even questionable symbolism, should be nipped in the bud. Before the conquest of Canaan, Israel had been strictly warned to destroy all Asherah poles (Ex. 34:13; Deut. 7:5; 12:3), and yet they intermittently fell into this degrading form of idolatry. (Judges 3:7; 6:25-32; 2 Kings 21:3,7)
Scripture tells us that the good kings would destroy the idols and tear down the altars to Baal and the Asherah poles sacred to the Queen of Heaven, but usually even the good kings did not destroy the “high places” (1 Kings 15:9-15; 22:41-43; 2 Kings 12:1-3; 14:1-4; 15:1-4, 32-35 [Hezekiah, who did destroy the high places, being the lone exception: 2 Kings 18:1-5]). Why did even the good kings fail to remove the high places? I believe it was because they did not know that the worship taking place there was wrong. The people were worshiping Yahweh, but they were worshiping Him in places and according to forms that had been dedicated to idolatry. In so doing, they were bringing God down to the level of an idol, and flirting with the licentiousness of the fertility cult with which the place and the forms were associated. Their syncretistic worship was corrupt and and unacceptable to the Lord. These Old Testament histories are written for our admonition and warning. (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11)
It could be argued that most people have no idea of the history of the fleur-de-lis, and see it only as an aesthetically pleasing decorative element; if they do not know of anything wrong with it, then for them there is nothing wrong with it. But Israel was apparently in the same situation with regard to the high places; most saw nothing wrong with what they were doing. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” (Prov. 14:12) God is very particular about sacred worship (Lev. 10:1-3; Num. 16), and about symbolism. (Gen. 4:2-7; Num. 20:6-12) Of the syncretism innocently practiced by the Samaritan woman, Jesus said, “Ye worship ye know not what. We know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22) and “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” (v. 24) Truth matters. True worshipers must learn the truth and follow it.
Even if someone is absolutely convinced that there is nothing wrong with the fleur-de-lis, Paul's counsel in 1 Corinthians 8 is relevant. Paul says that idols are nothing, and hence he personally has no qualms about eating food offered to idols. But other Christians believe they are defiled by consuming such offerings, so, to protect their consciences, he will not eat meat offered to idols. The same principle applies here. You may see nothing wrong with the fleur-de-lis, but others are aware of its dark history and are scandalized when they see it in a Seventh-day Adventist sanctuary. For their sakes, do not insist on putting it in the sanctuary, where in any case it has no real need to be.
Obviously, I lean toward the view that there can be no valid excuse for placing a fleur-de-lis in the sanctuary, but I look forward to reading the opinions of Advindicate readers. What do you think?