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Sources Of Animal Symbolism

( Originally Published 1913 )

No student of our ancient churches can fail to have noticed how frequently animals and other representations of natural history are to be found carved therein. The question will naturally occur : are these sculptures, or paintings, mere grotesque creations of the artist's fancy, or have they rather some meaning which patient investigation will discover for us ? It is only during the last few years that a satisfactory answer to these questions has been discovered ; though no doubt our grandfathers suspected that these animal carvings were not merely freaks of fancy.

Owing to a marked similarity in subjects of far different dates, and at far distant places, they may have felt that there was some link to bind them together. This link has now been found in the natural history books of the Middle Ages, which were in more common circulation than any other book, save, of course, the Bible.

Such books are usually called Bestiaries. They are to be found in every great library, and can be studied by those who have the patience and requisite knowledge.

Let us understand first what a typical Bestiary is like, and then we may try to solve the more difficult problem of its origin. A Bestiary may treat of about thirty or forty animals and birds, real or mythical. It may be adorned by illuminated miniatures of each animal treated, and will give a description of its supposed habits and appearance. Again, the writer may have some tale to tell about the animal. But last and not least, for this is the prominent feature of the Bestiaries are given the religious and moral lessons which the animal's behaviour can teach.

Few books have entered more than the Bestiaries into the common life of European nations. Hence we may understand that the sculptors who beautified our churches were not slow to make use of such accustomed material.


In thus laying the Bestiaries under contribution, the builders of a church would be able to carry out an important object—the instruction of all future worshippers. The parson was there to instruct through the ears of his congregation, while the sculptures would instruct still more effectively through the eyes.

No less an authority than Horace has spoken in favour of the eye as a medium of instruction

"Segnius irritant animos demissa per aurem Quam quae sunt oculis subjecta fidelibus."

—Ars Poetica. Lines 160-181.

And what is more, most modem teachers will agree with him.

The original Bestiary (generally called the Physiologus) was produced in a far less scientific age than ours. No one knows who wrote the Physiologus ; and there is no clue to be traced from the title, which simply means " The Naturalist." But owing to its doctrinal and linguistic peculiarities it has been assigned to an Alexandrine source.

Professor Land has shown that most of the animals mentioned in the Bestiaries are to be found in Egypt, or may be seen there occasion-ally. He has also drawn attention to the fact that the technical terms of Alexandrine literature are to be found in the Physiologus. The date of the original Physiologus is uncertain, for the original MS. is, of course, lost. But the versions of Bestiaries are to be read in about a dozen European languages ; perhaps the earliest of all belongs to the fifth century. The early naturalists, whether Greek, Roman, or Alexandrian, were not scientific. To them the classification and orderly treatment of our experts would have presented no interest. The Romans showed considerable ingenuity in training pets or wild animals, and their officials were most active in obtaining wild beasts to grace their triumphs or to afford amusement to the degraded populace in the amphitheatre. But their authors, in dealing with the habits of wild animals, showed no results of careful observation. More accustomed as they were to record scraps of folk-lore or untrustworthy travellers' tales, they never concerned themselves with the truth or falsity of details which to us are more important than wide and general observations. Even the sober and accurate Julius Caesar imagines that a kind of unicorn exists in Gaul. He soberly states, too, that elks have no joints to their legs, with the result that they can never lie down, but have to take their rest by leaning against trees. From this circumstance an ingenious method of capture had been devised by the natives.

The same remarks as to want of scientific accuracy apply, generally speaking, to the Greeks with the exception of Aristotle. Alexandria, the birthplace of the Bestiaries was an emporium of the learning and superstitions of the world ; the meeting place of East and West, Greek, Roman, Jew, Egyptian, in fact of scholars and traders from all parts. It was the Alexandrine scholars who translated the Old Testament into the Greek of the Septuagint, with which our early Christian writers are so accustomed.

Alexandrine scholarship and theology had many peculiarities. Some there were who tried to reconcile and combine the teaching of Greek philosophers with the teaching of Christ. Others, again, prominently Origen, interpreted the Bible, and even the natural history of the Bible, in a mystical or symbolic sense. The result was that the plain literal meaning was discredited. When the current methods of natural history came in contact with the current methods of Biblical interpretation, the fortunes of the former were assured. The Physiologus was produced by these two tendencies combined.

The translations of the Physiologus entered into all the popular literatures of Europe, and so it came about that animals from the East are represented in the churches of the West, to instruct medieval congregations.

The paintings in the catacombs at Rome were another source of influence on ecclesiastical art. Though some early Christians held all painting and sculpture in abhorrence, and protests against their use were made by prominent Fathers of the Church, yet at Rome, at any rate, art was held in high honour by Christians from the very first. About fifty of these catacombs are said to exist, though many are no longer explored. They consist of corridors and chambers cut out from the tufa which forms the subsoil near Rome. The dead were buried in niches along the corridors or in the chambers, the walls and roofs of which were stuccoed and covered with paintings. These paintings were quite frankly pagan in influence, though hallowed by the presence of Christian ideas. As time goes on they degenerate, but during the second century the skill displayed is quite remarkable.

When the conversion of the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a lawful religion, there was no longer the same necessity to bury the dead, or to worship secretly, in the catacombs. Churches began to be built in great numbers, and stone sarcophagi were produced as memorials of the departed. These sarcophagi are to be met with not only at Rome, but even in distant Gaul, Spain, and North Africa. To these numerous churches and sarcophagi the artistic influences of the catacombs were transferred.

Dr. Westcott in his essay on the Relation of Christianity to Art, describes early Christian art as conventional, symbolic, and reserved : conventional in subject and treatment, symbolic because it represents things not for themselves but for the ideas they conveyed, and reserved because among other things it shrank from depicting the human features of Our Lord.

This symbolism can, we believe, be traced to two or three causes. In the days of persecution it would be most dangerous for Christian art to be too obvious, with its meaning clear to the enemies of the Church.

But another, and even more important reason is given for the symbolic nature of early art. It is stated to be due to the intellectual tendencies of the time. Symbolism was, as it were, in the air.

No one believed in the old official religion just before or after the time of Christ, and in their weariness of it all turned to the newly conquered East, where they found some of the relief they needed in the mysticism and allegory, and bold theories as to the origin of the Universe so common there. What was obvious was now discounted ; while that which symbolised something deeper than itself was more satisfactory to the mind. As Christianity grew it made its appeal to men just through that symbolism to which they were growing accustomed.

A question which we might naturally ask is this : Did the architects and preachers of the Middle Ages believe in the existence of all those strange animals, such as dragons and centaurs, of which they made practical use ? Did they believe in the current folk-lore which they voiced and depicted ? Probably they were credulous enough. But, on the whole, we may say that the truth of the story was just what they did not trouble about, any more than some clergymen are particular about the absolute truth of the stories they tell children from the pulpit. The application, the lesson, is the thing ! This statement might be proved by references to early Fathers such as S. Augustine and S. Basil, and also to writers of the Middle Ages.

It is not very difficult to see their point of view when we remember that to most early Christians all nature was full of types of Christ and Christianity. To laugh at such ideas is easy, but, for all that, it may be that we have fallen into the opposite errors.

There is surely a sense in which a Christian may " Ask the beasts and they shall teach thee, and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee " (Job xii. 7).

We are trying to be wiser than our Master if we will not learn from the fowls of the air, and the lilies of the field, or even the ox fallen into the pit, and the hen clucking to her chickens.

All versions of the Bestiaries are teeming with a surprising number of errors, even where trustworthy information might have been obtained. Ignorance and credulity are responsible for many, but not for all, mistakes. The Physiologus was never a classical work, with a received text which was jealously guarded. But additions from many sources such as we cannot trace, might be made by the compiler of any version ; and if subsequent writers took a fancy to these additions, they would accept them without criticism or hesitation. A great deal of confusion was due to mistranslations of the names of various Biblical animals, or to a natural desire to identify the fabulous animals derived from the classics with others mentioned in the Bible. Yet the Bestiaries will not enable us to identify all the beasts and birds which are represented in our churches, for in many cases the carvings are so rough, or so far-fetched and fanciful that we cannot tell what was the artist's intention. Yet we are sure that, where investigation and comparison enable us to fix foi- certain the identity of the animal, the religious, moral or doctrinal lessons attached will generally be found in our Bestiaries, or more easily still in our Bibles.

To take just two examples. Where a little practice has enabled us to identify the " Agnus Dei " or " Lamb of God " as It stands or reclines holding a Long Cross in Its forepaws, we shall be able to find in the Bible the reference to Our Lord, " the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world," "the Lamb that was slain" of the Revelation.

Or when again we have performed the comparatively easy task of recognising the carvings of the lion, we shall in all probability find its exact meaning in most examples, either in the pages of the Bestiaries, or in the Old Testament, or perhaps in the interpretation which has been assigned by media val commentators to the lion of Revelation iv, which they held to signify the Evangelist, S. Mark.

It has often been surmised that the whole fabric of a church signifies the human soul, and that the good and bad animals carved inside and out represent the good and evil present in the soul. Some have suggested that the evil beasts carved outside a building (such as those under the eaves of the Norman Church of Kilpeck, Hereford) are a warning to the worshipper to leave his evil passions outside, or again that they are the forces of evil escaping from the holy structure. The difficulty of these two latter theories is apparent, when good animals and birds are seen in almost inextricable confusion together with those that are bad.

Symbolism of Animals & Birds In English Architecture:
Sources Of Animal Symbolism

The Ape, Ass, Beaver, Bear, Boar, Camel, Dog, Elephant

The Fox, The Goat, The Hart And Antelope, The Hyena

The Hedgehog, The Lamb, The Lion

The Ox, Pig, Panther, Salamander

The Sheep, Tiger, Whale And Fish, Wolf

The Charadrius, Cock And Hen, Dove

The Eagle, Goose, Peacock, Pelican, Raven

The Basilisk Or Cockatrice And Centaur

The Dragon Or Serpent

Read More Articles About: Symbolism of Animals & Birds In English Architecture

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