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The Sheep, Tiger, Whale And Fish, Wolf

( Originally Published 1913 )

IN old Roman churches sheep were types of the Apostles, as they gathered round the Agnus Dei. They are represented in bas-relief under the vault of the apse of these churches. Sometimes Christ will be depicted with a lamb in His arms, and surrounded by sheep, as on early paintings and engraved gems in the catacombs.

Here the sheep will, of course, signify the flock of Christ. An example with somewhat the same meaning, perhaps, may be seen on a Norman capital let into the wall of some almshouses in Hereford. A ram is on one side of the Good Shepherd, and a sheep on the other. We should know more for certain the symbolism of this capital, if we could identify the long, almost fish-shaped, object which is held in Our Lord's right hand, and the round object in Our Lord's left handóit may be a fish and a loaf which He is holding, in which case the reference would be to the miracles of the loaves and fishes. As we shall see when we deal . with the symbolism of the fish, these miracles are a type of the Holy Eucharist.

The Jews, though not lovers of Nature in general, were lovers of their flocks, as many references to sheep in the Psalms will prove. The chosen people were God's flock (Ps. lxxvii. 20, lxxiv. 1, Ixxix. 14). Many other examples might be given from the Old Testament generally, as well as from the Psalms. Ps. xxiii. testifies to the particular care of the Shepherd for his flock. Is. xl. 11 speaks of God's care for the returning exiles : " He shall feed His flock like a shepherd, He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young."

The title of Shepherd is often applied in the Old Testament to rulers, as, for instance, to David, and to the Ideal King of Whom David was a type.

When Our Lord desired to express His love and self-sacrifice for His people nothing came more naturally to His lips than the words of S. John x.

On the almost obliterated tympanum of a door to the south of Rochester Cathedral there is a symbol of the sacrifice of Christ.

Not much can be made out owing to the mutilation, but the inscription " Aries per cornua " (Ram by the horns), points to the sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, which was divinely averted by the ram caught in a thicket by its horns. The Hand of the Father or [)extra I )Dei can still be distinguished as coming out of the cloud.

This subject is treated rather frequently on the ancient crosses of Ireland.

It is curious to read that the tiger of the Bestiaries is a sort of serpent, which is so fierce that it can be approached by none. The hunters wish to carry off the tiger's cubs, for which purpose they devise the following plan. Having ascertained that the tigress has left her lair, they place mirrors in the path by which she is likely to return. On seeing her beauty in a mirror, the tigress forgets all about her cubs, and remains transfixed with admiration for a long while. The hunters then go and take away the cubs at their leisure.

In the thirteenth-century Bestiary in the British Museum (Harl. 4751) the tigress is shown actually looking in the mirror, and the hunter carrying off the cubs.

The moral is as follows : The tigress represents us Christians, and the cubs are our souls. The devil will get possession of the latter if we are led away by the pomps and vanities of this world.

Jonah and the whale are often found in the paintings of the catacombs, and on ancient sarcophagi and lamps.

In the thirteenth century glass of Bourges Cathedral Jonah's deliverance is depicted as one of the types of the Resurrection. This symbolism, of course, found its origin in Our Lord's words : " As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth " (S. Matt. xii. 40). At Bourges Jonah is represented together with other types of the Resurrection, such as the raising of Jairus' daughter, the Pelican in her piety, and the Lion.

It was said that the whale was wont to cover his back with the sand of the sea, as he rested on the surface of the water. In process of time birds would drop seeds on his back, which would germinate until trees grew there at last. Mariners would come along, and mistake the whale for an island. They would fasten their ships to the whale, and mount upon his back, camping out there, and making a fire. At last the heat would begin to penetrate through the whale's thick hide, and he would plunge into the water to ease himself, with the result that the ship would sink, and the sailors would be drowned. This scene is often depicted in its various parts in the Bestiaries.

The interpretation of the story is not difficult. The whale is the devil, the sea is the world, and the ship with its freight of human souls signifies ourselves. The devil, by his deceptive appearance, lures us to destruction and eternal loss.

The whale has another remarkable characteristic. Like the panther, he has a sweet breath when he opens his mouth ; but, unlike the panther's, the whale's breath has a bad interpretation. When the latter opens his jaws, and the odour comes forth, shoals of fish come and enter the huge jaws which suddenly close on them, and prevent their escape.

So the gates of hell will one day close on heedless souls, and hope of escape will be gone for ever.

In the carving at Alne, the ship and the sailors are represented, but the whale itself has been omitted. The remains of the inscription, " aspido," show what the artist intended, though the word makes no pretence of being the classical Latin for a whale.

In Ps. civ. 26 the leviathan there mentioned is, of course, the whale, but elsewhere in the Bible where the word leviathan is used it means a crocodile.

We might fitly deal here with the symbolism of other inhabitants of the deepówith the symbolism of the fish. The fish is often represented on the epitaphs and the smaller ornamental objects of the Roman catacombs, from the very earliest centuries.

Here it is symbolic of Christ, or of the Christian Faith, because of an acrostic which Eusebius, Augustine and others refer to, on the Greek word,

They took the letters of this word, and made each letter the initial letter of a separate word in the phrase (" Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Saviour").

Three fish were sometimes combined together in a triangle, the meaning of which is the Holy Trinity.

On some of the early stones of Scotland the fish no doubt symbolise Christ. In some examples they are typical of Christians, in close connection with the waters of baptism, or with the teaching to be drawn from the miracle of the Draught of Fishes.

In one of the side chapels in Hereford Cathedral is a small shield carved with a cross. On the sides of this cross are five raised circles or dots representing loaves, while underneath are three fishes all facing one way. This is a representation of one of the miracles of the loaves and fishes, which has always been held in the Christian Church to have an application to the Holy Communion and the Last Supper. Thus S. Augustine, thus Dr. Liddon in his Bampton lectures. We quote the words of the latter: " The permanent significance of that extraordinary scene at Bethsaida Julias is never really understood, until Our Lord's great discourse in the synagogue of Capernaum, which immediately follows it, is read as the spiritual exposition of the physical miracle, which is thus seen to be a commentary, palpable to sense, upon the vital efficacy of Holy Communion." Cf. S. John vi.

The subject of the miracle of the loaves and fishes is sometimes treated in the catacombs, and on ancient Irish crosses. On the Norman font of North Grimston, Yorks, are represented Christ and His twelve Apostles at the Last Supper, as He blesses the elements. Loaves and fishes are lying before the holy company.

One of the finest carved Norman fonts in England is that of Castle Frome, Hereford. Here S. John is baptising a diminutive figure of Our Lord. The Forerunner is nimbed and wears an ornamented maniple, but the Saviour has no nimbus. Above Our Lord is the Dextra Dei, representing the voice of the Father at the Baptism, and also the Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove. Four fish are carved swimming in the circular stream of Jordan.

Tertullian and Orientus make out the fish to be symbolic of baptism ; so, although they are almost unique at Castle Frome, they are not out of place.

The last of the really existing animals of which we shall treat is the wolf. Naturally it is another symbol of the Evil One. Our Lord's words : " I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves," would be sufficient to give the animal an evil character (Matt. x. 16), though it does not appear that Matt. vii. 15 has made the wolf the symbol of hypocrisy. The wolf is typical of stilt-necked people, for it seems that it was thought unable to move its head from one side to the other. The wolf's mate could have cubs only during a thunderstorm in May. Other curious characteristics may be remarked in the way the wolf hunts for food. It will approach the sheep-folds by night against a wind, so that the dogs may not scent it, and if it makes any accidental noise with its feet, it will bite the offending member severely.

In the 14th Cent. Bestiary in the British Museum (Slo. 3544) the wolf is drawn biting its paw. A dog is giving the alarm from a fold which contains three sheep, and a man is sounding a horn for help just behind.

It was thought that the wolf would make a man lose his voice if it sees him with his mouth open, but if the man sees the wolf with its mouth shut, then the latter can open its mouth no more. When hungry it fills its stomach with a ball of clay, which it disgorges with the aid of its paw when food is forthcoming.

Albertus Magnus, in his work on animals, states that when the wolf is moving amongst undergrowth it licks its paws till they are soft and slippery, so that none may hear its approach, and also that the wolf will put its paw to its mouth (much as small boys do, we suppose, when they are about to make an unearthly noise) so as to change its voice and frighten the shepherds by its curious tones. It is thought that there is a carving of a wolf on a Norman tympanum at Stockton, Worcester. His head is to be seen on the corners of the fonts of South Wootton and Toftrees, and also on a similar font at Shernborne. All these three churches are in Norfolk.

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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