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The Dragon Or Serpent

( Originally Published 1913 )

WE are all of us accustomed with the representations of the temptation of our first parents, Adam and Eve. It is probable that these have a Babylonian origin. In an ancient Babylonian seal a man and a woman are depicted seated on either side of a tree, and reaching out their hands to pluck the fruit. A serpent rears its head behind the woman, and seems to be whispering in her ear. Prominent critics have identified this scene with the Temptation, of which we read in Gen. iii, though it is only fair to add that some scholars will not admit the identification. From the early paintings of the catacombs right down to rough sculptures of the Temptation, such as that on the early nineteenth century tombstone at Llangwm, near Raglan, the representations vary only in the minutest details.

In this respect the treatment of the Temptation presents a marked difference from that of the Crucifixion, which for doctrinal and other reasons met with many changes.

The significance of the pictures of the Temptation in the catacombs and elsewhere is supposed to be as follows. They are thought to point to the need of Christ to redeem man-kind, owing to their sins. When the scene appears on fonts, as on the Norman examples of Cowlam and Cotham Yorks), Kirkby and Walton near Liverpool), Oxhill (Warwickshire), Fincham (Norfolk), and East Meon Hants, the thought intended will probably be : " As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive " (1 Cor. xv. 22). At East Meon the woman is taking the fruit out of the mouth of the dragon, while the man has already begun to eat.

The Temptation is found on many of the crosses of Ireland and Scotland, and on the Norman tympana of Thurleigh, Bedfordshire, and Caton, Lancashire.

A kind of tympanum in the much-restored church of Bridge, Kent, has the Temptation on it, besides a number of other panels representing the following scenes : The expulsion from Paradise, the sacrifices of Cain and Abel, and the murder of Abel ; but it is certainly later than the Norman period -to which Mr. Romilly Allen assigns it.

The example from Cobb's Hall, Aldington, is late. It was originally over a bedroom fireplace, which is now boarded in. It is interesting and unusual owing to the number of birds and beasts represented in plaster in the foreground and background.

Extraordinary representations of the Temptation occur at Vowchurch, Hereford-shire, and Llangattock, near Monmouth. At Vowchurch Adam and Eve are on the uprights of the seventeenth century screen ; fruits like pears are suspended above their heads, and conventional dragons have been carved on the beam which runs across.

The writer considers the Llangattock example at least doubtful. The slab on which it is carved is probably of eighteenth century workmanship. Two demi-figures, one male and one female, are put one on each side of a much-conventionalised tree, which contains in its upper branches a sort of star within the circumference of a circle. Adam seems to have a fruit in his right hand. Two curious little lion-like beasts are carved issuing from the tree.

Closely connected, if not actually identified with the serpent of the Temptation, is the dragon which is so often mentioned in the Revelation of S. John as a symbol of the devil. The dragon is usually depicted as a fierce creature with a sort of lion's head, two wings, two legs, and a twisted tail.

Mrs. Jameson, in her Sacred and Legendary Art, conjectures that the origin of the idea of the dragon comes from some great saurian which once really existed.

In early sculpture, as, for instance, on the wonderful Saxon capitals of the chancel arch of Selham, Sussex, and on the Tournai font at Lincoln Cathedral, the dragon's tail some-times terminates in a head or heads. This is in allusion no doubt to the sixth Trumpet of Rev. ix. 19, where the horses with lion heads of the Vision have " their power in their mouth and in their tails : for their tails were like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt."

These horse-like creatures here are dread ministers of some judgment of God.

We have incidentally mentioned the dragon in connection with the panther, and as attacking the young elephants. It is also the enemy of the doves which are to be found sheltering on the Tree of Life. This tree is supposed to grow in India : doves lodge in its branches and eat its sweet fruit. The dragon is afraid of the tree, and flees to whichever side is not in its shadow. If a dove ventures beyond the tree the dragon devours it. One or two doves are shown falling off in the fourteenth century English Bestiary (Slo. 3544) in the British Museum. The symbolism of this story is as follows. The tree is God ; the shadow is the Son ; the Dove is the Holy Spirit, and also it seems the Christian ; and the fruit of the tree represents wisdom.

Something like this fable may be carved on the Norman tympanum of Dinton, Bucks, where a tree is in the centre, and dragons are devouring the fruit on either side. According to the story, we must confess, they ought not to be so close. The animals cannot be lions, as they have only two legs. One eminent authority has described them as lions. Underneath the tympanum is the following inscription in bold Roman capitals


" If any man despairs of being rewarded according to his deserts

Let him hear advice which he would do well to keep."

The symbolism of the tree, generally speaking, is not easy to decipher. In the representations of the Temptation the tree will, of course, be the tree of knowledge ; when it is associated with birds or dragons it will probably be the Tree of Life, mentioned both in the Revelation and also in the Bestiaries. In the latter case, however, it might be meant for the Bestiary subject of the tree which produces birds as fruit. These birds fall off in time, some into the water and some on to the land. Those which fall into the water live ; those which fall on to the land, die. The lesson of baptism is not far to seek.

The tree on the tympanum of the fine south door at Kilpeck, Hereford, is a vine with grapes. This almost certainly is an allusion to Christ, the mystic Vine of S. John xv, placed in this position because He likewise is the Door.

The symbolism of the doors of Siston Gloucestershire), Rochford (Herefordshire), and Middleton Stoney will be similar probably to that of Nilpeck. There are two vines on the north side of the Tournai font at S. Mary Bourne, Hants. The trees on the tympana of Dymock and Kempley, Gloucestershire, resemble date palms.

The mutilated square font at Curdworth, Warwickshire, has a square-faced dragon on the eastern side with an Agnus Dei above trampling upon it, in fulfilment of the promise made in Genesis, " It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel."

On the north side there is a dragon whispering into the ear of a man in layman's costume, or perhaps about to bite his ear off. Mr. F. Bond suggests that, if the dragon is whispering, the reference may be to Simon Magus whispering into the ear of Nero. Below this dragon are the flames of hell. It is conjectured that Curdworth font may be of Saxon date.

On the Norman font at Kirkby, near Liverpool, Christ with His shaft is bruising the serpent's head, the serpent or dragon being cleverly worked into a broad cable moulding at the base of the font.

S. George the Martyr was regarded with peculiar reverence in England even before Richard I placed himself and his army under his protection for the third crusade. In the thirteenth century S. George ousted Edward the Confessor as the Patron Saint of England. According to the well-known legend, S. George was a native of Cappadocia in the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, in whose army he became a tribune.

One day when journeying to join his legion he came at an opportune moment to a city either in Libya or Syria. A dragon had been accustomed to devour the flocks and herds of the citizens until they were all exhausted. Failing sheep, the citizens had to provide the monster with children who were taken by lot. At length the lot fell upon Cleodolinda, the daughter of the king.

The king at first naturally felt disinclined to part with her, but at last the entreaties of his subjects forced him to acquiesce in her fate. Cleodolinda was sent weeping along the way which was strewn with the bones of earlier victims. S. George happened to see her, and enquired the reason of her tears. He was exhorted to flee from the dragon, but he boldly stood his ground. After a dreadful combat the saint's lance pinned the dragon to the earth. The monster was then bound with the maiden's girdle and led back to the - walls in triumph, where it was finally dispatched. After this event the citizens became Christians in their thousands, because they saw in S. George so doughty a champion of Christ. S. George was finally martyred for trampling on an anti-Christian edict of Diocletian.

Mr. E. P. Evans traces the artistic representations of the story from Egyptian bas-reliefs of Horus slaving Seth Typhon, which are like our pictures and carvings in almost every detail. In the reliefs, Seth Typhon, representing darkness, is shown as a crocodile. Further, the same author imagines that it was from Egypt that the myth of S. George spread over the whole of Christendom. April 23rd is the day set apart both for Horus and S. George.

The usual emblematic representation of S. George, which we find on our coins, is seldom departed from, though there is a woodcut in Parker's Calendar of the Prover Book of an illustration from a Bodleian Library manuscript, where the beast that is being slain is more human in appearance than the usual dragon.

It is sometimes rather difficult to ascertain when we have a representation of S. George and the dragon, and when we have one of S. Michael and the dragon, but the former is generally on horseback, and of course without wings.

On a sepulchral monument at Coningsborough, Yorks, S. George is on foot with sword and shield, and the dragon stands menacing the saint with twisted snake-headed stings. It has its claws on a fallen human being.

The tympana of Ruardean, Gloucestershire, and Brinsop, Hereford, are almost exactly similar to one another in treatment. S. George's military cloak flies back in the wind, and the costume generally and the carving of the horse are alike in both cases, but the Brinsop example has two more or less mutilated birds (? doves) over S. George's head, and the arch stones around contain some of the signs of the Zodiac. The symbol-ism of S. Michael slaying the dragon is based on Rev. xii. 7, 8, and Jude 9. This archangel was accounted to be the special patron of the Jews after the Captivity, and afterwards he naturally became the patron and protector of Christians. He is said to have appeared to S. Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, in 708, and to have commanded him to build a church in his honour on what is now Mont S. Michel in Normandy. When the bishop had done the archangel's bidding, Mont S. Michel became a favourite place of pilgrimage, and churches were built in other parts of Europe with a similar dedication on the tops of high hills. S. Michael's Mount, Cornwall, and S. Michael's Chapel, Torquay, are accustomed instances of this.

We are accustomed with the archangel in paintings of the Doom, which were so often placed above the chancel arch, though in this case he is carrying out his special work of weighing the souls to see whether they are fit for heaven. A relief on the tomb of Henry Vll in Westminster Abbey shows him engaged in both the above occupations.

Mrs. Jameson gives an interesting seventh century example of S. Michael and the dragon, which is carved in white marble on the door of Cortona Cathedral.

We have in the lintel of S. Bees a carving which may possibly be almost as early as this, though modern opinion places the work somewhere in the eleventh century. It is the only interlaced lintel known. Various authorities differ with regard to the subject carved upon it. It may be S. Michael ; it may be S. George ; or again it may be Beowulf whom we have here. Beowulf was a great hero about whom an Anglo-Saxon epic was written in the seventh century. He was no doubt a real person, and is supposed to have been killed by a dragon after an adventurous life, and buried in a great barrow on a promontory of Denmark.

In the centre of the lintel are the saint and the dragon with twisted tail, and at the sides are nude interlacings. The shape of the shield is thought to point to eleventh century workmanship.

Another early example is to be seen on a slab at S. Nicholas, Ipswich. The dragon has a trebly barbed sting, and the inscription proclaims the subject : " Her Sc(M)ihael fehtidh dane Draca "" Here S. Michael fighteth the dragon."

In the example on the lintel under the Dinton tympanum the archangel is prepared to thrust a cross down the monster's throat.

The font of Thorpe Arnold, Leicester, shows S. Michael on foot, with a cross on his shield, and a sword in his hand. He is attacking dragons which assail him on both sides. The beards of these dreadful creatures are exactly like the teeth of a saw. Though the composition is rough, the whole scene is full of vigour.

A good number of representations of S. Michael are figured in Keyser's Tympana.

One of the emblems of S. John the Evangelist is a chalice with a dragon issuing out of it. Many stories are told in explanation of this emblem. One of the most accustomed is the one given by S. Isidore, who relates that an attempt was made to poison S. John in the sacramental wine. After the consecration, the Apostle not only received the sacred Element himself, but also administered It to the congregation without hurt ; while the would-be assassin fell dead. God had permitted the poison to escape in the form of a dragon.

Another version of the story relates how the poison was given by order of the persecuting Emperor Domitian.

An interesting instance of this emblem is to be seen in a late chapel in Hereford Cathedral. A chalice is carved with a large hexagonal foot upon a shield, and a tiny dragon is issuing out of the bowl. Beside the chalice is a quill pen, which signifies that S. John was the Evangelist.

Stories about S. Margaret, the Patron Saint of Childbirth, were very common during the Middle Ages, but there is only one with which we shall have to deal here, and that is the story of S. Margaret and the dragon.

The legend goes that she was the daughter of a heathen priest at Antioch, but brought up in the country by a Christian nurse, whose sheep she used to tend.

One day the governor of Antioch saw her as he passed by. Being captivated by her beauty, he gave orders that she should be taken -to his palace, where he desired to make her his wife. S. Margaret rejected his offer with scorn, a repulse which so enraged him that he had her put to dreadful torture. When she was immured in a dungeon, she was tempted by Satan in the form of a dragon, which finally swallowed her up. But the dragon instantly burst, and the saint emerged alive. She was at length beheaded by order of the cniel governor.

The symbolism of the story is of course the usual one of sin being conquered by the power of the Cross.

There is much similarity in Norman representations of S. Margaret and the dragon. The saint's head and shoulders are generally carved as coming out of a hole in the centre of the beast, while her heels are just disappearing into the dragon's mouth. We find this scene on a capital in the church of Bredforton, Worcestershire, and on the fonts of Cowlam and Cotham, Yorks. On the pedestal of the fifteenth century font of Docking, Norfolk, there are eight female saints, and among them is S. Margaret with spear and dragon.

On the tympanum of Ault Hucknall the dragon is bursting and S. Margaret is issuing forth. This carving is so like a centaur that many authorities have taken it to be one.

The authority for the view given here is Mr. C. E. Keyser.

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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