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

( Originally Published 1913 )

THE greatest difficulty presented by the study of ecclesiastical zoology, is not so much to discover the interpretations or symbolic meanings of the various animals, but to find out for certain what animals the carvings before us represent.

Some, like the lion or the centaur, may easily be recognised, but many animals cannot he identified, with the result that their interpretation is lost to us. In the latter case a study of the original MS. of a Bestiary will sometimes yield astonishing results. For in the Bestiaries we shall be able not only to read the animal's name, but to see a picture of it displaying some characteristic or habit which, as likely as not, is also depicted in architecture.

It will be found impossible to arrange the animals and birds treated of in this book in a scientific order, but on the whole the alphabetical order which we have adopted will be most convenient for reference.

Our method will be to write first about such animals, and afterwards such birds as really exist, even though their habits have been much misrepresented by ancient authors ; and afterwards again we will deal with those that are fabulous and mythical. In practice, however, it will be found hard to keep the real and the fabulous separate. In a book of this size it will not be possible to deal with all the creatures mentioned in the various Bestiaries, but our aim will be to say what we can about those which are frequently represented, or likely to be represented, more or less, in our English architecture. We shall begin with the ape.

According to Mr. Romilly Allen, there are no representations of the ape in our churches dating from before the thirteenth century. It is probable that this statement needs qualification.

Anyone who has tried to decipher the carvings of the beautiful Norman Church of Barfreston, in Kent, will have been struck by the monkey-like characteristics of some of them. Some years ago the writer thought that he noticed a small carving of a monkey on the Transitional Norman door of Chirton, in Wiltshire, and his supposition has been confirmed by the answer which the resident clergyman gave to his enquiry about the matter. In later times, the ape is sometimes carved, together with other animals, on the stalls of our larger churches. It is to be seen, for instance, on the misericords of Lincoln and Bristol Cathedrals. In such cases, stories of the type of AEsop's Fables were no doubt in the mind of the artist at the time.

We read a good deal about the ass in the Old Testament, where it is mentioned about fifty times under names which denote either its endurance or its ruddy colour. Besides being used for agriculture and for burdens, the ass used to bear official dignitaries upon its back. By riding thus mounted into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Our Lord not only revived the humble pageantry of the Book of Judges (cp. Judges 10, x. 4, xii. 14), but also fulfilled the Messianic prophecy of Zechariah. The scene of the entry into Jerusalem upon an ass is occasionally treated in Norman sculpture, as, for instance, on the Norman font of West Haddon, Northampton-shire. In this example a man is shown offering Our Lord a palm.

The ass and the ox together are to be seen on carvings of the Nativity, or the adoration of the Magi. On Fincham font, Norfolk, the manger, the Holy Child, a big star, and the heads of an ox and an ass are alone depicted. On a panel of the fifteenth century reredos of Yarnton, Oxon, the ox and ass are shown eating out of a common manger, while three kings, one of them young and beardless, come and offer their golden cups to the Infant Saviour, Who is seated in His Mother's arms. S. Joseph with his carpenter's " square" is rather crushed into a bottom corner. On the font at Walton, near Liverpool, there is a carving of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. S. Joseph is carrying Our Lord, while the blessed Virgin rides the ass, and a cross is carved over her head.

Buddhist sages used to counsel their disciples to take pattern by the humility and patience of the ass.

We know of no English architectural representations of the beaver, which is so often depicted and described in the Bestiaries. The story goes that certain parts of the beaver were filled with a precious substance useful in the cure of certain diseases. The hunters would zealously track the animal to obtain this substance. But the beaver would know what they were after, and by self-mutilation give the hunters the object of their desire, and thus effect its escape. So the man of God is to separate from himself the works of the flesh and, by throwing them to the devil, to save his soul alive.

In a splendid English Bestiary of the thirteenth century in the British Museum (Harl. 4751) the hunters are depicted with their prize, while the beaver is allowed to escape.

The bear often figures in Norman architecture, where it is probably a symbol of the devil. Such, for example, is the interpretation which S. Augustine gives in his sermons, when he explains the significance of David's combat with the lion and the bear. The best examples we know of are carved on the south door of the exquisite Norman church of Barfreston. Here are two bears (or possibly a bear and another animal) discussing with evident relish the contents of a hive of honey. Below this is a still more curious medallion. A bear is playing the harp, whilst a naked human figure is contorting itself to the music, with both hands and feet upon the ground. Antiquaries have been much puzzled by this : What does it all mean ? To the present writer the simplest interpretation seems the best. It means that the devil is luring his victim to destruction by bodily and sensual delights.

The bear is sometimes to be found muzzled on Norman corbels. Here, too, the application is obvious. The devil when muzzled cannot do much harm.

The wild boar is to be seen on Norman tympana, notably at S. Nicholas, Ipswich, and Ashford, in Derbyshire. In the latter example the boar is attacking a conventionalised tree from one side, while a lion is on the other side. It is just possible that we have here an allusion to Psalm lxxx. 13, where it is said of the vine brought out of Egypt, that " the wild boar out of the wood doth root it up ; and the wild beasts of the field devour it." If this interpretation be correct, then the meaning of the sculpture would be, that the power of evil is trying to uproot and destroy the power of Christ.

The boar is found on a most curious early sculpture at Clifton Hampden Church, Oxon, which Mr. C. E. Keyser says represents a hunting scene with hunter and hounds. It looks as though the hunter were in a state of mortal terror as he clings to the tail of the foremost hound. Under the body of the boar is the head of a man, who has been already killed. Perhaps the whole body was there once, but the fragmentary nature of the sculpture prevents our ascertaining this. If Mr. Keyser's interpretation, which we have followed, is correct, the hounds are unusually large, far larger than the man.

At Tutbury, Staffordshire, and Little Lang-ford, Wiltshire, are other representations of a boar hunt. Two wild boars face one another on a perpendicular screen at Headcorn, Kent.

The camel, and similar beasts, are frequently, represented in manuscripts of all countries in the British Museum and else-where. We have seen a camel carved on one of the fine sixteenth century bench-ends of Sefton, Lancs ; where a rider is seated on his back, and brandishes a short sword, or scimitar.

A bacteria or camel-like animal is drawn on the famous early fourteenth century map of the world in Hereford Cathedral. This unique composition, which is scattered thickly over with representations of animals from the Bestiaries, with their appropriate inscriptions, was the work of a prebendary of the cathedral, who gives his name as Richard de Haldingham and de Lafford.

The dog is represented as a rule in hunting scenes, probably with no intentional symbol-ism, and also at the feet of recumbent effigies and brasses. Once, at any rate, he is carved on the foot of a cross slab also, as on a sepulchral slab at Oakley, Beds. He is to be seen on the very archaic but probably fourteenth century font of Lostwithiel, in Cornwall. The date of this font has been a matter of considerable discussion among antiquaries, as there are certain features (such as a prick spur in a panel representing a hunting scene, and a Crucifixion in another panel with two nails to secure the feet of Our Lord) which by themselves would point to an earlier date. Other details must however be later. It is on the whole best to suppose that the early-looking features are simply survivals in later work. Cornish architecture is full of archaisms.

One panel of the Loswithiel font contains a huntsman mounted on horseback with a horn in his mouth, and a hawk on his left hand. A hound is running on ahead, with the same stiff bounding action as the horse. On another panel a hound has caught a hare by the hindquarters, while above are the traces of a reptile carving, disfigured probably by the Parliamentarian army, which turned the church into a stable, and even baptised a horse in the font.

One of the most delightful specimens of natural carving is on an arch stone of Barfreston south door. A bit of English landscape is indicated by a tree, in front of which two hounds are running to the right, while the object of their pursuit, a hare, has doubled back to the left and is escaping.

There are few carvings of the elephant before 1200, though the head of one is carved under the string course at the west end of the Norman church of Kilpeck. A man has been caught in the animal's trunk.

The elephant is one of the animals dealt with at length in the Bestiaries. It is said to be so strong that it can carry a tower full of armed men on its back, and therefore it is of great service in battle. The Bestiaries often represent it with the tower, which sometimes contains the men who are fighting with their enemies.

The elephant was said to live years, while the female, according to mediaeval authors, requires two years to bring forth its young. When the time arrives for the elephants to pair, they go to a region in the neighbourhood of Paradise, where the mandragora grows. Of this plant they eat. When the mother is about to bring forth her young, she goes into a pond until the water touches her breast, and there gives them birth. As the Psalmist says : " Save me, O God, for the waters are come in to my soul." Mean-while the male keeps watch against the dragon, which seeks to devour the newly born elephant. If the male discovers the dragon, he kills him by stamping on him with his feet. The combat of the elephant and the dragon is often drawn in old manuscripts. Sometimes the dragon wounds the elephant, as the latter crushes him down ; sometimes the dragon manages to coil himself round the elephant's body.

The elephants are in an absurd way typical of Adam and Eve, who ate of the forbidden fruit, and also have the dragon for their enemy. It was supposed that the elephant (much like the elks of Julius Caesar) used to sleep by leaning against a tree. The hunters would come by night, and cut the trunk through. Down he would come roaring helplessly. None of his friends would be able to help him, until a small elephant should come and lever him up with his trunk. This small elephant was symbolic of Jesus Christ, Who came in great humility to rescue the human race which had fallen "through a tree."

The Bestiaries have a good deal to say about the mandragora, or mandrake, which the elephant eats in Paradise. It is a plant, luminous at night, which is shaped just like a human being. When people wish to obtain the mandrake, they have to be very careful, for it will flee at the sight of an unclean man. First, its head must be touched with iron. Then the earth is scraped away with an ivory staff, until the hands and feet of the plant appear. Next the plant has to be tied to a dog's neck, and meat is thrown to the dog, in such a way that, when he tries to catch the meat, he must jerk the mandrake up.

The mandrake is really a plant of the same genus as the belladonna. It has yellow fruit about the size of a plum, with a peculiar sweet taste. The popular tradition, referred to in the Bible, that the mandrake is an aphrodisiac, still survives in Palestine. There is a representation of it on the map of the world in Hereford Cathedral (as mentioned above), with the inscription : " Mandragora herba mirabiliter virtuosa."

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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