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Batch. Why animal sculptures in churches?

Representation of animals in churches: modillion of the Notre Dame de Velles chapel in Vers in the Lot. (©A. Decup)

In the Lot churches but also everywhere else in France, what visitor to a Romanesque building has not been perplexed by seeing a wolf or an owl gazing at the faithful of a 13th century church?

Almost everywhere, inside and out, there are depictions of animals in churches. Engraved in the stones, most of the sculptures, well highlighted, are very visible on the eardrums or the capitals. Because the path followed in a building must become an initiatory journey so that, from capital to capital, from bending to pillar, a dialogue is established between the one who walks and the stones that guide him.

Other sculptures hide in more discreet places. Like the wooden stalls where the animals hide under the seats, the modillions, these sculpted elements supporting the cornices or even between two arches.

Why carve animals in churches?

Real or imaginary animals have always fascinated and inspired man. They too, like men, have the right to land, tradition and history. Why wouldn’t they have the right to Christianity? They are found on tapestries, in manuscripts and in places of worship. Because they are linked to an episode from the Bible or refer to the lives of saints.

It should be remembered that three of the four evangelists are symbolized by animals: the eagle for John, the bull for Luke and the lion for Mark.

The sculptors (and painters) of the Middle Ages liked to represent nature, fauna and flora to praise the divine creation: if the animals celebrate the glory of God, they also educate man and evangelize him, the animal being a model to follow or not to follow. In the church, a place accessible to all, the message is understandable by everyone, erudite as well as illiterate.

Representations of animals in churches: a fox and its prey at the church of Lamothe-Fénelon in the Lot.
Representations of animals in churches: a fox and its prey at the church of Lamothe-Fénelon in the Lot. (©A. Decup)

Animal symbolism in Romanesque churches

The sculptures in our churches are not just works of art. They carry missives that the men of that time could understand because the majority of them could not read.

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Although we have lost some of their meaning, some 800 symbols engraved in the stones of the Middle Ages delivered essential dispatches. Plants and animals are among them.

This large book of images which is our Heritage, allows an approach to an art which has remained, despite the centuries, surprisingly alive.

Among the real animals represented, let’s take a few:

– The owl symbolizes nocturnal knowledge and awareness. It is an emblem of vigilance and hope that accompanies us in “our darkness”. This very common bird in medieval statuary seems to watch over the faithful.

– Often at the foot of the columns, the frog shows the active participation of primitive life. Symbol of aquatic life and animal transformation, this batrachian illustrates the metamorphoses for which the lunar principle is responsible.

– Cunning, always on the lookout, the fox is at this historical period, possessor of knowledge and full of wisdom. Popularized in the 12th century by “Le Roman de Renart”, it is from this collection that certain scenes of capitals come, which are sometimes deemed obscure to our understanding.

– Illustrating a primitive and demonic form, the boar is an element of the “Round Table”. Despite Christianity, the Druidic religious significance has survived. He remained a mythical being linked to the forest and to the missing mages.

– The horse represents the instincts and mastery of those who know how to dominate their impulsiveness and curb their passions. Sublimated, he leads his rider into the abode of the gods. Symbol of power and power, the best conquest of man takes place both in the night and the light, at the beginning and at the end.

– Do not forget the rooster on the steeples: the bird whose song signals the passage from darkness to light is linked to the denial of Saint Peter. It is above all a solar animal which reminds us that Christ will reappear like the sun at the time of the Last Judgment.

The Mysterious Animals

For the people of the time, some of these animals were very real like the unicorn or the half-rooster half-reptile basilisk. Chimeras and hybrid creatures, mixtures of several animals or mixtures of human beings and animals are perceived as ill-finished humans, symbolizing vice and evil.

Animal symbolism reflects the idea it has of itself

Since ancient societies, the marvelous has always been linked to nature. Animals belong to this wild universe which escapes the reason of men and which is still directed by mysterious forces.

Since the parietal art of the Upper Paleolithic, Man has always needed, through the animal, “to exorcise his fears, to transfer into creatures his qualities and his faults, his strengths and his deficiencies, his will also to dominate. The animal beyond its nourishing role, has become a great allegorical mirror of the human race”. We can thus say that “animal symbolism reflects not animals but the idea that man has of them and perhaps the idea that he has of himself”.

Animals know how to say so many things to each of us, so many things about themselves and about ourselves.

The message of the stones, places of energy

Never has an art illustrated these correspondences between man and animal as much as Romanesque art. It is precisely this pedagogy that sculptors have taken up, using not only the biblical message of creation, but also all the contemporary contribution that it has modeled to give us its spiritual message.

The church is par excellence the link between the visible world and the invisible world. It is more than a work of art, it is a machine to generate, to heal, which functions not only on the physical plane but also on the planes of knowledge, from the vital to the spiritual. It is also a place of prayer.

And the strength of the builder monks is to have known how to reconcile science and the sacred. They “knew how to allow those who were free in heart to access the marvelous fire of the divine forces”.


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