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The Eagle, Goose, Peacock, Pelican, Raven

( Originally Published 1913 )

THE Bestiaries say that when the eagle has grown old and is nearly blind, it flies up into the air, till it scorches its wings in the heat of the sun. Then it plunges straight into pure water three times, from which it emerges young once more. A similar story about the eagle is told in Spenser's Faerie Queene.

The original source of this story about the eagle is no doubt partly to be found in Ps. ciii. 5, which in the Septuagint and Vulgate is rendered, " Thy youth shall be renewed as the eagle's." In our Prayer Book we have " making thee young and lusty as an eagle."

The representation of the eagle renewing its youth was supposed to symbolise the sacrament of Baptism. Hence it is peculiarly suitable on fonts.

An example of the same fable can no doubt be seen on a bench-end in Forrabury Church, which is now part of the altar. The tail feathers of an eagle which has just made the rejuvenating plunge can also be seen.

The eagle can look up at the sun without blinking its eyes, and from aloft is wont to gaze down upon the waters. When it sees the fish as they swim below, it will make a clive and capture them for itself. The eagle here represents Christ, Who can gaze upon God's dazzling glory ; Who also came down on earth to capture the souls of men out of the sea of this world.

The eagle also carries the eaglets in its claws up to the sun. It rejects all those that cannot look at its brightness, but saves and rears the others. In like manner Christ bears souls that are fit for the vision of God, into His very presence.

Another fable mentioned in the Greek Bestiary about the eagle is as follows. When the bird grows old, its beak becomes so long that it is likely to die of hunger. To obviate this fate the eagle will break off a portion against a stone. So Christians ought to break off all carnal-mindedness upon the rock of salvation.

The eagle taking a fish out of the water is represented on the jamb of a Norman doorway at Ribbesford, Worcestershire, and on an early cross at S. Vigeans, in Forfarshire.

As we have already mentioned, the eagle sometimes stands for the Evangelist S. John.

On one of the arch-stones at Alne an eagle is carved flying alone, with the inscription " Ala," the equivalent of Aquila.

As we have seen before, the goose plays a prominent part in the artistic warfare of the various kinds of clergy, and the orders of friars. When geese are listening to a fox we suppose that they symbolise the silly souls who put their trust in the monk or friar, as the case may be. But, of course, the meaning is often simpler than that. A good example of a goose is to be seen together with a swan on a bench-end at Forrabury. The swan was symbolic of the martyrs because it sings with its dying breath.

There is a poppy-head at Newington, near Sittingbourne, if the writer's memory is correct, carved with a fox devouring a goose.

The peacock passes direct from Pagan to Christian art. In the former it was Juno's bird, and was supposed to represent the apotheosis of an empress. On Christian sepulchres in the Catacombs the peacock is symbolic of immortality ; either owing to a belief mentioned by S. Augustine that its flesh was incorruptible, or perhaps because it sheds its tail feathers every year, to regain them more gloriously in the spring. So far as we know, the peacock is not in architectural representations an emblem of pride.

According to the Bestiaries, when the pea-cock awakes, it cries out in fear because it dreams that it has lost its beauty : so the Christian must fear to lose the good qualities with which God has endowed his soul.

The pelican, sacrificing itself for its young, is a symbol with which we are all more or less accustomed. It is mentioned in Ps. cii. 6, together with the owl of the desert as a type of the despairing soul. Canon Tristram thinks that this allusion is due to the pelican's mournful attitude which is assumed for hours after it is gorged with fish. At such times it remains with its bill resting on its breast.

Canon Cheyne in the Encyclopędia Biblica writes that the common fable about the pelican giving its life for its young conies originally from Egypt, and also that the same fable was once attached to the vulture. Naturally, the pelican is an emblem of the atoning work of Christ.

The Bestiaries say that the pelicans are fond of their young, but when the latter grow older, they begin to strike their parents in the face. This enrages the parents, which kill them in anger, but at last one of them comes in remorse and smites its breast with its beak so that the blood may flow and raise the young to life again.

The " Pelican in her piety," as the heralds call this symbol, is often found on font covers, such as those of Southacre, North Walsham, Sahara Toney, and Ufford. The brass lectern of Norwich Cathedral is a pelican, and there is one on a misericord in Ashford Church, Kent.

The symbolism of the pelican seems to be connected not only with Christ's Passion, but also with the Christian Resurrection. In the painted glass of Bourges Cathedral it is to be seen with other types of the Resurrection, viz., the lion raising its whelps ; Jonah delivered from the whale ; and Elijah restoring to life the widow's son of Sarepta.

The raven is seldom, if ever, found in our English architecture : if it be represented at all, it will be most difficult of recognition.

According to the Physiologus, young ravens are not acknowledged by their parents, owing to their featherless state. This idea may be derived from Ps. cxlvii. 9, " Who feedeth the young ravens that call upon Him " ; and also from S. Luke xii. 24, " Consider the ravens God feedeth them " ; and Prov. xxx. 17.

When the raven came across a carcase it was supposed that it would eat the eyes first, the symbolic significance of which supposed fact is as follows. Confession and penance are like ravens, which pull out the eyes of covetousness from the soul which is dead in trespasses and sins.

The raven is sometimes depicted with a dove in pictures of Noah and the ark. While the latter bird is thought to symbolise the Christian, the former means the carnal-minded Jews.

In real life the raven seldom devours any-thing but carrion or badly injured animals. The swan, as we have hinted already, is a type of martyrdom and Christian resignation. With this significance it is represented in a MS. of the fourteenth century in the Musee de Cluny, Paris, where among other virtues and vices, Humility wears a helmet adorned with a swan.

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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