Amazing articles on just about every subject...



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

( Originally Published 1913 )

ON the Norman doorway of Alne, in York-shire, among a number of other animal carvings, is one of an animal lying on its back, with paws outstretched, so that it seems to be dead. Two birds are represented ; one pecking the animal's body, and the other placing its head in its jaws. The inscription aboveŚthe word Vulpis ---leaves no room for doubt as to the artist's intention.

The Bestiaries relate that the fox ensnares unwary fowls by pretending to be dead ; in like manner the devil deceives unwary souls who love the corrupt things of the world. The carving at Alne was probably taken direct from a Bestiary. This and the other carved archstones from the same church are particularly valuable, owing to their inscriptions.

In a very mutilated Liber de Animalibus of the thirteenth century in the British Museum (Vit. D. 1) two birds are pecking at the mouth of the fox ; while the latter is shown with his eyes cunningly closed, and he has caught a third bird in one paw.

Quite as frequently the fox is represented as preaching in a monk's or friar's habit to geese and other creatures, as on the stalls of Beverley Minster, S. Mary's Beverley, and Ely Cathedral. Generally such carvings are accompanied by others which represent Reynard devouring his flock, or paying the penalty of his crimes on the scaffold : from which ordeal he sometimes emerges aliveŚto try again !

At Worcester Cathedral there are carved on a misericord foxes running in and out of holes. S. John the Evangelist stands near by with his Gospel in his hand, and his eagle at his feet. Here we can see an allusion to our Saviour's words, " Foxes have holes," etc., in S. Matt. viii. 20. It has been supposed that the object of this particular carving is to induce him who sees it to choose between good and evil.

The carvings of the fox in friar's garb are undoubtedly satirical. To the friars of the thirteenth century a great revival of religion was due. They mixed with the people in fair and market, and won many to Christ by their preaching and self-denying lives. But, alas, in the fourteenth century, and still more in the fifteenth, their zeal declined, until they became the veritable forerunners of the modern tramp, and the terror of good housewives who lived near the main roads. For such reasons as these, and also for their restless and innovating spirit, the begging friars were much disliked by the secular and monastic clergy ; whenever the latter built their churches, they would not forego their opportunity of paying off old scores if they wanted subjects for the misericords.

The goat of the Bestiaries is fond of the high mountains. It can tell from a long distance whether men are merely harmless travellers, or hunters coming to destroy it. It is thus typical of Christ, the far-seeing Son of God, Who foresaw the deceit of the devil, and His Own betrayal by Judas.

So far as we know, the division of the sheep and the goats on the Judgment Day (cp. Matt. xxv. 32) is not represented in English architecture ; but examples of the goat are to be seen on the capitals of the chancel arch of Adel (Yorks) ; on the jambs of a doorway at Ely Cathedral, and probably with other animals on the tympanum of the north door of Barton Segrave, Northants.

The Bestiaries comment in an extraordinary manner on Psalm xlii. I, " Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul after Thee, O God."

We are content with the natural and obvious interpretation : not so the Physiologus. The Physiologus says that the hart and dragon are at enmity. When the former sees the latter it goes and fills its stomach with water at the nearest stream, while the dragon flees for refuge into a cleft of the rocks. Then comes the hart, and blows the water down into the hole where the dragon is, so as to drown it out. The dragon is finally dispatched by the hart's feet. This absurd story of the hart makes it typical of our redemption by Jesus Christ. Our Lord followed the devil into the lower places of the earth, and, by pouring blood and water from His side, drove away the devil by the waters of regeneration.

This story is probably carved in wood on the pulpit of Forrabury, Cornwall ; though in this case the dragon is more like a four-legged beast or devil. Here we see the hart at the top of the carving, hurrying as fast as it can, while below is the cleft of the rock, and on either side of the cleft are the head and hindquarters of the devil who is looking out in fear. Perhaps he is represented more at large on the next panel. Forrabury pulpit is made up of what were originally bench-ends. Even the altar is similarly constructed.

The stag hunt is very frequently represented on Celtic crosses. Sometimes we see the stag represented alone, as on an arch of the shamefully used Norman church of Shobdon, Hereford. On a stall at Sefton, Lancashire, something very like an antelope is carved. The animal has serrated horns, and is shown eating herbage, while his horn-less mate is prancing off in fear in the opposite direction.

There may be here an allusion to the mediŠval idea, according to which the antelope's horns are so powerful, that he can saw trees asunder with them. It makes its way when thirsty to the banks of the Euphrates, but on the way it is led aside to eat some pleasant shrubs. These entangle its horns, so that the hunters or wild beasts come and kill the antelope.

The two horns of the antelope represent the Old and New Testament, with which the adversary can be resisted. But woe betide the Christian who allows himself to be led away by the temptations of the world, for then what was formerly of use can help him - no more. This scene is often represented in mediŠval manuscripts, as, e.g., in the illuminated Psalter of Isabella of France. In the thirteenth century Bestiary in the British Museum (called Harl. 4751), a hunter has been attacking the antelope with axe and horn. There is a wound in the antelope's side, with the life-blood gushing out, as the animal falls in death.

The hyena can generally be recognised in architecture by his being represented as devouring a human carcase, or something that looks like a plant or tree. At Aine there is an inscribed example of the latter.

In the thirteenth-century Bestiary in the British Museum (Vit. D. 1) the hyena has a cat's head, and curious bands or straps round its neck and body. It is devouring a plant. In other MSS. it has prised off the lid of a sepulchre, and is devouring a corpse.

The Bestiaries say that it is like a bear, with the neck of a fox, and that it has the power of changing its sex. The hyena is thus symbolic of nameless vice, and also of the double-minded man. A characteristic of the hyena is that he is wont to inhabit tombs, and devour the dead bodies. We see him thus occupied on a rafter in the roof of one of the cloisters of Hereford Cathedral. The hyena is supposed to have in his eye a stone, which, when it is placed under a man's tongue, will give him the gift of prophecy. Sometimes this animal imitates the human voice, and lures shepherds to their destruction by calling their names at night.

Sir Walter Raleigh in his History of the World affirms that the hyena is the offspring of a dog and a cat, and that it came into existence first, just after the Deluge. It would not have been tolerated in the ark !

Both at Alne and at Hereford, the hyena's floriated tail is very noticeable. We have seen no other animal carved with such a tail as his. It was the tail that enabled us to recognise him on one of the Norman capitals under the tower of Alton parish church, Hants, where the carving is very similar to that of Alne, though there is no inscription.

Besides his being a symbol of impurity and instability, the habit of preying on corruption makes the hyena to be a type of the Jews, who preferred the dry bones of the law to the living Gospel. There is no beast with a less enviable meaning.

For once the Bestiaries have got hold of a fragment of the truth. The hyena, which is commonly found in Palestine, seldom attacks living animals except under pressure of severe hunger. He is the most cowardly of all beasts of prey. When even carrion is unattainable, the hyena has been known to take a skeleton that the vultures have picked clean, and to crush the bones with its powerful jaws, so that it may extract the marrow. It is a solitary animal and, as it makes night hideous by its cries, the hyena is naturally an object of superstitious dread throughout the countryside.

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



Home | Privacy Policy | Email: info@oldandsold.com