Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/December 1896/Animal Symbolism and Ecclesiastical Architecture

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PROF. EDWARD P. EVANS is already well known to the readers of the Popular Science Monthly as a contributor of historical and psychological articles especially valuable and interesting.

His position upon the editorial staff of one of the most important European journals gives him extraordinary opportunities to discern events having a real bearing upon contemporary thought. As a scholar deeply interested in the most important modern questions, he has for several years past interpreted to Germany the significance of current American history and literature, and at the same time he has kept thoughtful Americans informed regarding various important political and philosophical developments in the New Germany, and in Europe generally.

This latest of his works is one for which every student of history, in its largest and best sense, should be grateful to him. Under the title of Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture he has thrown a bright light into the evolution of thought during the middle ages, and at the same time into the whole course of human development; and his book is not only learned but interesting; so that it will not only prove profitable to scholars but attractive to the general reader.

Many a ponderous and voluminous work on mediæval history and art, requiring months for its study, is really far less valuable than this little book, which can be read delightfully by the fireside during the winter evenings of a single week.

The great majority of thinking Americans who travel abroad are naturally attracted and impressed by the mediæval cathedrals. Representing the most profound and brilliant phase of architecture, these great creations attract even those who have little feeling for art in general. Among all structures reared by man they take strongest possession of thoughtful minds.

Yet few, even of the most attentive, see in them their full depth of meaning. Even the most scholarly traveler has been wont to give up some of the most interesting cathedral problems in despair. By the side of some sculptured group of heavenly beauty he sees masses of carving, grotesque, and not infrequently profane and even obscene. He can not understand why a sculptor who seems to have caught sight of cherubs and seraphs should suddenly revel in the creation of devils, imps, and animals, real and imaginary. The whole seems an incongruous jumble. This jumble, and much else, Prof. Evans interprets to us, and shows us how all grew naturally out of human thought and aspiration.

The key which he furnishes us to these strange problems presented by mediæval art is mainly the old dogmatic relation between Nature and Scripture. In the early Church the science of Aristotle and his successors was speedily turned into a channel of which they never dreamed. Scientific truth ceased to be studied for truth's sake, but was used to ascertain and illustrate the meanings of the Bible, and to establish the dogmas of the Church. The book of Nature was held more and more to be the counterpart, and therefore the interpreter, of the book of Revelation. The visible creation was held to be a mirror of the spiritual realm. Hence a new and most extraordinary growth, which, while it has been supplanted in our time by the blooming forth of modern science, still shows some lingering blossoms.

Very early in the history of the Church appeared the treatise known as the Physiologus. In this, various objects in Nature were made to interpret and to be interpreted by various passages in Scripture. So successful was this work that there grew out of it great encyclopædias of sacred science, and the historical student still finds in all properly furnished university libraries works of such vast scope as those of Vincent de Beauvais, Thomas de Cantimpré, and Gregory Reysch.

Most important among the early sources of this stream of mediæval thought was Origen. Early in the third century that eminent biblical scholar, profound and prolific, laid down a great doctrine, as follows:"The visible world teaches us concerning the invisible; the earth contains images of heavenly things, in order that by means of these lower objects we may mount up to that which is above. . . . As God made man in his own image and after his own likeness, so he created the lower animals after the likeness of heavenly prototypes."[2]

The main biblical basis for this great statement was found in two passages, one from the Old Testament, the other from the New. The first was the text from Job, as follows: "Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee." This outburst of poetry, from perhaps the most profound poem in human history, was taken as a prosaic statement of truth. The other text was the statement of St. Paul, that "the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made."

The result was that the Physiologus, which interpreted the sacred significance of the animal kingdom, had a wider circulation than any other book save the Bible, and was translated into the languages even of the remotest Christian peoples.[3]

It will appear strange to any one not well acquainted with the ways of mediæval thinkers that the animal which had perhaps the earliest and greatest significance was one which existed neither in the Bible nor in Nature, but which was evolved by early Christian thought, brooding over statements which came from the sun worship of earlier nations and from pagan literature. This animal was the phoenix; it was made to teach a world of church doctrine, and was even stamped upon the coin of the first Christian emperor.

In the twelfth century we have, as an outgrowth of the Physiologus, the Bestiaries. These developed this theological learning still further, and now it comes in with a full tide. The sculptures of cathedrals, the paintings on stained glass, the illuminations of manuscripts, the embroideries of vestments, are all filled with phoenixes, unicorns, salamanders, as well as with the whole range of animals having real existence.

Of animals having real existence, the lion was perhaps most frequently sculptured, and regarding him the Physiologus is especially explicit. Among other things it ministers to edification as follows: "First, when the lion perceives that the hunters are pursuing him, he erases his footprints with his tail, so that he can not be traced to his lair. In like manner our Saviour, the lion of the tribe of Judah, concealed all traces of his Godhead when he descended to the earth. Secondly, the lion always sleeps with his eyes open; so our Lord slept with his body on the cross, but awoke at the right hand of the Father. Thirdly, the lioness brings forth her whelps dead and watches over them, until after three days, the lion comes and howls over them and brings them to life by his breath; so the Almighty Father recalled to life his only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, on the third day."

Another animal which we constantly find lurking in the sculptured foliage of cathedrals is the lizard. Regarding this the Physiologus informs us that in its old age it becomes blind, creeps into some crevice looking eastward, and, beholding the rising sun, is restored to sight: on this the mediæval naturalist advises us: "In like manner, O man, thou who hast on the old garment, and the eyes of whose heart are obscured, seek the wall of help, and watch there until the sun of righteousness rises with healing power and removes thy spiritual blindness."[4]

Mixed in with real animals come those whose existence is more doubtful. Great stress was laid upon the unicorn, and John of Herse, in his pilgrimage to Jerusalem toward the end of the fourteenth century, declares regarding the river Mara, whose bitter waters Moses made sweet, that "even now, evil and unclean beasts poison it after the going down of the sun; but in the morning, after the powers of darkness have disappeared, the unicorn comes from the sea and dips his horn into the stream, and thereby expels and neutralizes the poison, so that the other animals can drink of it during the day. This fact, which I describe, I have seen with my own eyes."

Naturally, among the animals which first attracted the attention of those who thus expounded the ways of God to man was the elephant. First, as to its birth, we are told that it takes place in the water, and that this fact symbolizes baptismal regeneration. Then, too, we are told that the elephant "always sleeps standing, and leans for support against a tree. The hunters take advantage of this fact and saw the tree almost asunder, so that the tree gives way, the elephant falls, and is captured. This evidently symbolizes Adam, whose fall was caused by a tree."

The serpent, of course, comes in for a large share of this kind of interpretation, and therefore appears most frequently among the carvings in wood and stone, both within and without the cathedrals.

As to the lessons thus taught, one of the first is that "when the serpent has grown old it fasts forty days and forty nights until its skin shrivels and loosens. Thereupon it squeezes itself through a narrow crevice in the rocks, and thus casts its skin and renews its youth. And thou, O son of man, if thou desirest to put off the old Adam and be regenerated, must pass through the strait gate and walk in the narrow way which leadeth unto life."

And again: "When the serpent goes to a spring to drink water, it leaves its venom behind in its den; so he who would refresh his soul with the waters of eternal life must leave behind him every sin of his carnal heart."[5]

Of course, in any such pious treatises the eagle naturally came in for a considerable share of attention, and we are informed that "the eagle, when it has grown old and its eyes become dim, flies upward toward the sun until it has purged away the film from its eyes; it then descends to the earth, plunges three times into a spring of pure water, and thus recovers its sight and renews its youth"; so the Christian should "fly aloft on the wings of the spirit to the sun of righteousness, . . . and then dip himself thrice in the well-spring of salvation."

Again, one version of the Physiologus tells us that the upper beak of old eagles grows so long that it would prevent them from eating and cause them to die of hunger did they not break off the superfluous part of the beak against a stone; and on this alleged fact is based the statement that "the rock of salvation is the only cure for the growth of carnal-mindedness, and the sole means of preventing spiritual starvation."

Of marine animals the early Christian philosophers knew little, but naturally they had heard of the whale, and found important meanings in him. One of the lessons taught by the whale is given as follows: "When he is hungry, he opens his wide mouth seaward and a pleasant odor issues from his maw, so that other fishes are deceived and swim eagerly toward the place whence this sweet odor comes. In heedless shoals they enter into his extended jaws; then suddenly the grim gums close and crush their prey. Thus the devil allures men to their destruction and closes upon them the barred gates of hell."

The mediæval imagination played curiously about the pelican. A type of the atonement was found in the supposed fact that the pelican tears open its breast and feeds its young with its own blood. New value was given to the pelican by that great thinker, St. Augustine. Writing upon the passage in the one hundred and second Psalm—"I am become like a pelican in the wilderness"—he says: "The males of these birds are wont to kill their young by blows of their beaks and then to bewail their death for the space of three days. At length, however, the female inflicts a severe wound on herself, and, letting her blood flow over the dead ones, brings them to life again."

Naturally, this statement, coming from a man so widely venerated, proved a great source of inspiration to the pious writers and sculptors of the middle ages.

The otter and the crocodile also attracted the attention of these pious writers, and they developed in good faith the following statement: "When the crocodile sleeps, it keeps its mouth open; but the otter wallows in the mire until it becomes thickly coated with mud, which dries and hardens and forms a sort of armor, thus enabling it to run securely into the jaws and down the throat of the sleeping crocodile, and to kill it by devouring its bowels. So our Saviour, after having put on flesh, descended into hell and carried away the souls dwelling therein; and, as the otter comes away unharmed from the belly of the crocodile, so our Lord rose from the grave on the third day, alive and uninjured."[6] Interesting also is the pious use made of the panther. Of this beast it is said: "It is the nature of the panther to live in friendship with all animals except the dragon. . . .When it has eaten a little it is satisfied and goes to sleep in its lair, and after three days it awakes and roars with a loud voice, and out of its mouth proceeds a sweet smell; then all the beasts of the forest far and near follow after it," but "this rare scent is offensive only to the dragon, which hastens to flee as soon as it gets a sniff of it. In like manner our Lord Jesus Christ arose out of the sleep of death and drew all nations unto him through his 'sweet savor.' But this same savor discomfits the dragon, that old serpent which is the devil." The very curious statement regarding the beaver is perhaps best read in the original, where it is illustrated by a striking engraving. It serves to show that some cathedral sculptures usually considered obscene were not so intended.

Of course, the domestic fowls could not escape the notice of these keen interpreters of theology and science. We may take as typical the following: "When the cock finds anything, it does not eat it, but calls the hens together and divides it among them. In like manner the preacher should distribute among his flock the kernels of divine truth which he discovers in Holy Writ, picking them to pieces in order that they may be more readily taken in and digested."[7]

Very curious are sundry long and intricate developments of theory regarding various animals. One of these was evolved out of the beautiful text, "As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God." The Physiologus tells us that "the hart is the foe of the dragon, which, when it sees its enemy, runs away and creeps into a cleft of the rocks. Then the hart goes to the stream, fills himself with water, and vomits it into the cleft where the dragon is. Having thus drowned the dragon, the hart tramples it under its feet; as the prophet Isaiah predicts that at the coming of Christ a man shall 'go into the clefts of the rocks and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for fear of the Lord.' Thus our Saviour slew with the water and blood flowing from his side the great dragon, . . . and taught us to contend against the hidden designs of the devil."

A comical quasi-scientific profundity is at times mixed up with these statements. Thus some commentators upon Scripture declare that "the hart, in killing the dragon, inhales its poisonous breath, which produces intense thirst and consequent longing for the water-brooks."

So, too, regarding the antelope, we are told that "the antelope is a wild animal with two powerful horns, with which it saws trees asunder and fells them. . . . The two horns are the books of the Old and New Testaments, with which the believer can resist the adversary and push him to the ground, and can cut down all growing sins and vices." Mingled with this statement are a number of subordinate lessons.

Very curious among these developments of the pious mediæval imagination are the barnacle geese, as described in the Bestiaries. It is declared that "they grow on trees by the seaside, and hang from the boughs by their beaks until they are covered with feathers and fall like ripe fruit. If they reach the water, they swim and live; but if they remain on the dry ground, they perish." Naturally, this illustration was used with great force to prove the efficacy of baptism in saving the soul, and Gerard of Wales made a curious use of it to prove the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Very justly and aptly does Prof. Evans call attention to the fact that some of the dogmas which have long obscured and even supplanted Christianity, and which are still insisted upon as substitutes for the Christianity taught by Christ himself, were devised and handed down to us by the very thinkers who developed these legends and made this pious use of them.

But another very interesting field is opened by the use of mediæval sculpture for satirical purposes. The growth of it in this direction begins to be especially evident in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and it culminated about the time of the Reformation. Monkeys appear as choristers, swine as monks, asses as priests, sirens as nuns, wolves as the father confessors of lambs. In one painted window a fox is represented preaching to a flock of geese from the text, "God is my witness how I long for you in my bowels." In Ely Cathedral a fox is represented arrayed as a bishop. Here comes in what has so astounded many travelers—the apparent obscenity of some of these representations. Gentlemen who have visited some of the greater cathedrals are hardly likely to forget the leer with which the sacristan sometimes raises the wooden seats of the choir, or points to a bit of carving in a corbel, which seems the result of the grossest license. It was really the outgrowth of the same bitter feeling against the growing corruptions in the Church, which led such pious preachers as Geyler of Kaisersberg to speak in the plainest terms against the same evils.

Various writers in these days have found fault with Luther for the grossness of some of his utterances, but as we note these earlier representations in art and Christian literature we see that his diatribes were but a natural evolution out of an earlier Catholic phase of thought.

Among the animals which took a leading part in mediæval sculpture at this period was the fox, and a text of the Physiologus was widely translated into sculpture. This text ran as follows: "When the fox is hungry, it lies down in a furrow of the field and covers itself partly with earth, as though it had been long dead. Then the ravens and other rapacious birds come to devour it, when it suddenly leaps up and tears them to pieces. Thus the devil deceives those who love the corrupt things of this world and obey the lusts of the flesh, and entices them to their own destruction." Representations of this scene and others in which the fox plays a leading part are very common in the later mediæval sculpture. In Worcester Cathedral is a carving showing foxes running in and out of holes, while John the Evangelist stands near with his gospel in his hand and an eagle at his feet. Here the foxes are types of the devil, and John the Evangelist the herald of divine truth. In Canterbury Cathedral are sculptures representing a fox dressed like a monk and preaching to an assembly of geese.

Very severe at this later period were some of the caricatures by devout Catholic sculptors upon the begging friars. In the church of St. Victor at Xanten are carvings in which is represented a monster with the feet of a pig, the tail of a fox, and the head of a monk.[8]

The ass was also used for a similar purpose. Thus, on a column of St. Peter's Church at Aulnay an ass is represented as standing on his hind legs and clothed in ecclesiastical costume. Even in so devout a country as Spain, and in such a theological center as the Cathedral of Toledo, we find striking examples of this same satirical spirit; and at the Cathedral of Burgos are sculptured satires no less striking, against vice and folly.

More and more frequently throughout Europe we have in sculpture these figures of foxes preaching to fowls, with other foxes lying in wait behind the pulpit to catch the congregation; of asses wearing rosaries, of donkeys playing upon the lyre, of pigs playing upon the bagpipes, of foxes confessing birds, and of wolves confessing sheep; and these appear not only in sculpture, but in other forms of art. In the collections at Cornell University are some very curious specimens. A very rare missal, obtained by the writer of this article in Germany some years since, is full of illustrations of this kind.

Very interesting is the final chapter of Prof. Evans's work, entitled Whimseys of Ecclesiology and Symbology, and among these the reader will doubtless most rejoice in the extracts from a paper on Vestiges of the Blessed Trinity in the Material Creation, published in the Dublin Review for January, 1893, by the Rev. John S. Vaughan, who finds traces of this doctrine "'written large across the whole face of Nature’ and everywhere suggested by ‘such familiar things as rocks, mountains, seas, and lakes.' "

This reminds us of Mr. Gladstone's famous discovery that the trident of Neptune, in some occult manner, symbolized the Christain Trinity; the trident being, after all, nothing but the most natural form of fish spear, devised in consequence of the fact that, owing to the refracting power of water, a single spear head is not likely to be so useful in catching fish as one with three prongs.

Into the concluding chapter of the work is brought a bird which greatly exercised the mediæval imagination—the peacock. A text is cited from the Physiologus to the effect that "when the peacock wakes suddenly in the night, it cries out as if in distress, because it dreams that it has lost its beauty, thus typifying the soul, which in the night of this sinful world is constantly fearing to lose the good gifts and graces with which God has endowed it." Perhaps one of the most curious typical examples of ultra-theological reasoning is seen in the pious argument of the Bestiaries that "the tail of the peacock denotes foresight, since the tail, being behind, is that which is to come; and foresight is the faculty of taking heed to that which is to come."

Much light is thrown into mediæval ideas, also, by other sculptures, especially those representing Satan. This, indeed, opens a great chapter, and a chapter which was by no means concluded at the Reformation. Undoubtedly a considerable part of Luther's theology regarding the devil was drawn from this source. The writer of this article, some years since, staying for a time at Wittenberg, and being frequently in the great church where Luther so often preached, noted directly opposite the pulpit a sculptured imp emerging from a mass of carving. Nothing could be more natural than that the great Reformer, wearied with other themes, should by this and similar sculptures in other churches be constantly drawn off from his main subject to his well-known denunciations of Satan and satanic influences.

It should be remembered that in the ages before printing the cathedral sculptures took, for the people at large, the place of the printed book. Robert de Luzarches and Erwin von Steinbach, who built, preceded Faust and Schoeffer, who printed. Victor Hugo recognized this when he pictured his Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, as absorbed in the study of the series of sculptures about the choir of that cathedral. The special value of Prof. Evans's book lies in the fact that, like Prof. Crane's book on the Exempla of Archbishop Jacques de Vitry, it enables the American reader to get really into the thoughts of his ancestors who worshiped in the cathedrals. For the general thinker, also, such works are of real use, as revealing more and more clearly that all progress in thought is the result of an evolution which is by no means to cease in our time.

Prof. Evans's work is thus valuable, not only to the student of art and literature, but to every one who wishes to penetrate the meanings of history in general. The writer of this article, having visited and studied nearly every cathedral and church of any importance from Throndhjem to Palermo, and from Dublin to Moscow, can vouch for the exactness of the statements made in this little book; and it should be added that the learned professor has attached to it a bibliography which, to any one who wishes to carry this fascinating subject still further, will prove most helpful.


  1. Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture. By E. P. Evans. With a Bibliography and seventy-eight Illustrations. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1896.
  2. See Evan's work cited, p.28.
  3. See Evans, p. 62.
  4. See work cited, p. 94.
  5. See work cited, p. 114.
  6. See work cited, pp. 131, 132.
  7. See the curious mediæval poem given at page 162.
  8. See work cited, p. 224.