Symbolic animals

Justine Stewart
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, Spring 2013]
Bernini's Elephant sculpture

My topic is about the use of animals as symbols in Christian religious art. I will explore why specific animals symbolize different themes and the biblical context in which these symbolic animals are mentioned. One of the most common animals found decorating churches and basilicas is the dove. The dove represents the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was baptized, he saw “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (Matthew 3:16-17). The dove is the harbinger of land and hope in the story of Noah and the ark. Doves are mentioned many times in the Bible, often representing purity and peace because of their white color and tameness. The Holy Spirit is usually depicted in the form of a dove with rays of light shining from behind it, oftentimes positioned above Jesus’ head.
The lamb symbolizes Christ because the lamb has been used as a sacrificial animal since the ancient Israelites. Christ is the lamb that is sacrificed to redeem all sinners. The stag is also considered a symbol of Christ as an interpretation of the deer in the Bible book Song of Solomon: “The voice of my beloved! Behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills. My beloved is like a roe or a young hart (male deer)” (Song of Solomon 2: 8–10). The apparition of a stag with the crucifix between its horns in the legend of Saint Hubert also uses the stag as a symbol of Christ.

Sculptures in the Centrale Montemartini Museum

The four evangelists, Mark, Luke, Matthew and John, each have their own creature symbols. Mark is symbolized by the lion to emphasize the themes of the royalty and power of Christ the King in his gospel. Luke is represented by the bull to signify strength and sacrifice. Matthew’s symbol is a winged human to represent the theme of Christ’s humanity present in his gospel. Finally, the eagle symbolizes John because his gospel emphasizes Christ’s divinity and the heavens. Interestingly, Mark’s symbol of the winged lion is the same symbol used to represent ancient Babylon. The winged lion is a symbol of authority, supported by the gods.
The symbols of the evangelists are often shown with wings. Adding bird wings to creatures is an ancient technique in symbolic art language used to show that something is sacred or holy. This symbolism dates back to polytheistic Middle Eastern cultures of 3000 BC. The association between wings and divinity probably came from the observation that birds fly and reside closest to the sky, the sun, and the heavens. Therefore, birds and wings represent divinity. This symbolism is used repeatedly in the Bible. The Holy Spirit as a dove, angels, and the strange creatures called seraphim that appear in the prophet Isaiah’s vision all use wings to express heavenly power. “Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew” (Isaiah 6:2).

Mausoleum of Costanza: interor & apses

Eagles, birds of paradise, and peacocks also appear in Christian imagery. In early Christian art, peacocks are depicted guarding the gates to paradise, or heaven. Peacocks were thought to be somewhat immortal, similar to phoenixes, because they shed their beautiful tail feathers and grow them back every year. Thus, they represent eternity and were given the role of the gatekeepers of paradise.

Santa Maria Maggiore
Many other animal symbols are used in Christian art, including various bird species, sheep, donkeys, dragons, and unicorns, all taken from biblical references, pagan influences, and ancient traditions.