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The Hedgehog, The Lamb, The Lion

( Originally Published 1913 )

THE hedgehog is a type of the Evil One. Mediaeval natural history described him as a robber of the vines. First he would knock off the grapes and then he would carry them away on his spines. In a similar way the devil robs men of their souls.

On a spandrel of the perpendicular Easter sepulchre at Childrey, Berks, the hedgehog is carved eating grapes from a conventional vine, and three dogs come to bark at and worry him. The hedgehog seems imperturbable, confident in his power of being a match for any or all of them.

When a lamb is seen in architecture, it is almost always the " Lamb of God " or " Agnus Dei," Who was crucified for our salvation, the only acceptable sacrifice. The ecclesiastical symbolism is derived not only from S. John Baptist's words with reference to Our Lord : " Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world," and from S. Peter i. 19, " A Lamb with-out blemish and without spot " ; but more particularly from the Revelation of S. John, where the symbolism is met with more than a score of times. It was for this Lamb that the Old Testament sacrifices were a preparation.

Our artistic representations have their prototype in almost every detail in the paintings, sarcophagi, and mosaics of the early Roman churches and catacombs.

There as here in England we may see the sacred Animal nimbed, with the long cross. of the Resurrection beside It. But, of course, there are many examples in which the Agnus has no nimbus, as, e.g., in a medallion between two evangelistic symbols at Aston, Hereford, at Kilpeck Church, and also on perpendicular fonts such as that of Southfleet, Kent.

The banner which flies from the cross in this, and many other examples, is, like the long cross, a token of victory over death. Or it may be symbolic of the victory of the Lamb over the Beast, mentioned in Rev. xvii. 14.

The early Roman examples have, however, a piece of symbolism which is lacking in our churches ; for the Lamb is sometimes shown standing on Mount Zion with four rivers of Paradise issuing forth from the base (cp. Rev. xiv. 1, xxii. 1). These four rivers were held to be symbolic of the four evangelists. In other early examples the Lamb is placed in the centre, with the Apostles ranged as sheep on either side.

The Lamb with the cross is the earliest symbolic representation of the Crucifixion. All early Christians disliked to represent the actual scene of Our Lord's Passion, partly out of fear of ridicule, partly because they shrank from representing the slavish way in which Our Lord was killed, but chiefly because of that laudable reserve, which is a characteristic of all early Christian art.

As time went on, however, reserve gradually gave place to realism. The Lamb came to be represented on the Cross, as at Wirksworth, Derbyshire, from which it was a short step, determined by a council held at Constantinople in 683, to place the actual figure of Our Lord upon the Cross. One of the very earliest extant examples of Christ Himself on the Cross is carved on an ivory casket of the fifth century in the British Museum. Even here there is no true realism. Our Saviour has His eyes open, and Judas has hanged himself on a tree hard by.

Of the interesting slab at Wirksworth to which we have just alluded, Bishop Westcott says as follows : " The slab was found some years ago buried under the floor of the chancel. The work is rude, and was probably executed by some English sculptor of the ninth or tenth century, but the design is of a much earlier date, and may reasonably be referred to an Italian artist of the sixth or seventh century. . . . On the centre of a plain Greek cross is laid the figure of a dead Lamb. As far as I can learn, the conception is unique. The drooping head and the bent legs of the victim tell of death with eloquent force ; and under this limited aspect it is perhaps allowable to present for contemplation the dead Christ. No one, I think, can regard It without feeling that we have lost greatly by substituting a literal representation for such a symbol."

On the Norman tympana of Parwich and Hognaston, Derbyshire, the Agnus Dei seems to be incongruously assorted with a crowd of wild beasts, birds and serpents. In the latter case the beasts are accompanied by an ecclesiastic with his pastoral staff. The symbolism of this association has constantly puzzled archeologists. It seems to the writer, however, that a suggestion of Mrs. Jameson in her Sacred and Legendary Art comes near to explaining the meaning.

" When," she says, " wild beasts as wolves and bears are placed at the feet of a saint attired as abbot or bishop, it signifies that he cleared waste land, cut down forests, and substituted Christian culture and civilisation for Paganism and the lawless hunter's life : such is the significance in pictures of S. Magnus, S. Florentius, and S. Germain of Auxerre."

Even where, as at Parwich, there is no ecclesiastic, the symbolic meaning may be much the same.

On the Norman font at Kirkburn, Yorks, the Lamb is confronted by a savage with a club on his shoulder ; the savage is leading by a rope what may be a bear.

As a rule there will be little difficulty in recognising the " Agnus " through the bent foreleg in which the Cross is carried.

There is no animal more frequently represented in our churches than the lion. His symbolism is twofold, both good and evil, and therefore it is somewhat confusing.

The lion is easily recognised by his tufted tail (either between his legs or curved over his back), and also by his conventional mane, which is often like feathers.

In the Hereford mappa mundi the lion is almost indistinguishable from the leopard, so that in some cases it is probable that the latter is intended. The lion is often typical of Jesus Christ, the Lion of the tribe of Judah (cp. Gen. xlix. 9, Hos. v. 14, Rev. v. 5). By referring to the last passage we read that Our Lord is also symbolised by the Lamb in the next verse, with a different purpose : the Lamb representing what was gentle and obedient in the perfect character of Him Who was sacrificed for us ; while the Lion is rather a type of Christ's power and might, and all that was kingly and majestic in Him. Mrs. Jameson notes that in paintings of the saints the presence of the lion symbolises solitude, or perhaps the manner of the saints death. Three principal characteristics of the lion are recorded in the Bestiaries.

(1) When he is pursued by hunters he is able to efface the tracks of his feet with his tail. So the " Lion of the tribe of Judah " concealed His Godhead from all who did not seek Him aright.

2) The lion was supposed to sleep with his eves open. This is a type of the wakefulness of Christ's Godhead whilst His human body was wrapt in the sleep of death. Psalm cxxi. 4 is also quoted in this connection : " Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep."

A lion is carved on Eardisley font, Herefordshire, with one eye open. Lions are also carved on the east front of Barfreston with probably a symbolic meaning of this character.

(3) There was a fable that the lioness brought forth her cubs dead. After three days the male lion would come and howl over the cubs, and quicken them by his breath. So the Almighty Father on the third day recalled to life His only begotten Son, and one day will quicken us together with Him. The lion is thus a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Who was Himself "the first fruits of them that slept."

The lion was taken as a type of S. Mark, because it was felt that he among the Evangelists dealt especially with the Resurrection of Christ, and with His Kingship.

This symbolism is, of course, originally derived from the Revelation, where the four living creatures were held in Christian tradition from the second century onwards to represent the four Evangelists. According to more modern commentators the four living creatures(wrongly translated beasts) are "best regarded as representatives of created life in its various aspects, in the midst of which God sits enthroned " (Dr. Gibson). Then there is the evil significance of the lion as well. We get this on a Norman font at Stafford, where lions are carved with the words : " Discretus non es si non fugis ecce leones."

The lion has an evil meaning when he is shown as being subdued by some hero, such as Samson or David. It is sometimes difficult to recognise which hero of the two is represented, except that when David is killing the lion a crook, or harp, or lamb, is shown as well ; whereas when Samson is intended he may sometimes be recognised by the long hair of the Nazarite, as on the Norman tympanum of Stretton Sugwas, Hereford. Samson is no doubt represented on the interesting Norman font of Darenth, Kent, with what is meant for a jawbone, whereas it seems to come from the thigh of an ass. At Darenth the lion has a human face.

It is uncertain which of the two is carved on a capital of the south door of Iffley, for we are unable to decipher the object in the top left-hand corner.

At Iffley and at Barfreston, too, the lion is shown with wings. The matter would be less complicated had the sculptor kept more closely to the descriptions in the Bible, but his representations are far too conventional for him to do that.

In Judges xiv. 6 we read that " The Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon Samson, and he rent the lion, as he would have rent a kid."

This method of dispatching the enemy seized on the fancy of the artist of the Middle Ages more than the Biblical description of David's prowess, in 1 Sam. xvii. 35.

There it is said of David, that when a lion and a bear took a lamb out of the flock, " I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth ; and when he arose against me, I caught him by the beard, and smote him and slew him."

David and the lion are often represented in Celtic MSS. and on Celtic crosses.

Both the scenes we have described are typical of the power of Christ, to save the Christian " from the lion's mouth " (Ps. xxii. 21), and from the power of our adversary the devil, who, as a " roaring lion walketh about seeking whom he may devour " (1 Pet. v. 8). S. Augustine, in one of his discourses, treats the story of David killing the lion and the bear as a type of Christ, when He descended into hell, and delivered the souls out of the jaws of Satan.

The most curious tympanum of Charney Basset in Berks is probably a very conventional example of Daniel in the lion's den. I f this is so, the lions are carved in an unusual manner, being more like griffins than lions. The fact that these beasts are represented with wings does not add any difficulty to the view that they are Iions.

Daniel in the lion's den is also carved on a tympanum at Shalfleet, Isle of Wight, and is commonly found in quite early work on the Continent.

M. de Caumont imagined that the man between two monsters is expressive of the power of the Faith of Christ to conquer what is evil.

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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