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Throughout the ages, dating back to the 2nd century, documents called Bestiaries were collected and compiled. Bestiaries were an interesting mix of fact and fable, weaving new, scientific evidence with long-standing legend. Every animal, alive or imaged, found its way into the Bestiaries. One of the most popular Bestiaries was called the Physiologus. It was translated into many languages and was read throughout the known world.
Christianity, eager to show that creation proved the existence of God, began adding commentary to the Bestiaries, showing how these “facts” revealed parts of God’s nature. These living lessons would become illustrations in many sermons, making their imagery well known to the masses. Even some early church fathers like Augustine, Ambrose and Gregory the Great used illustrations from the Bestiaries.
Artisans, whose imaginations were ignited by the illustrations, would set to work translating these animals into art. Decorations based on the Bestiaries have been found as early as the 2nd century catacombs in Rome. From the catacombs, the animals would begin to appear in the mosaic art of the early churches. When the churches grew larger and more elaborate, the artists translated the illustrations into stonework and stained glass windows. While the Bestiaries would eventually be condemned by
Pope Gelasius (492 A.D.), the stories and images were just too popular to set aside. They would continue to be used throughout the middle ages before gradually falling into disuse.
ADDER (Asp) – The Bestiaries tell us that the adder is a serpent (a kind of dragon in some accounts) with a deadly bite. It is said when charmers try to entice the adder out of its cave, it will put one ear to the ground and plug its other ear with its tail so as to not hear the incantation. This story is symbolic of a sinner who stops up his ears when the truth is spoken. In some architecture, the adder is depicted under the feet of Jesus.
ANT – 1. The ant symbolizes the church through its cooperative work ethic and focus on community. 2. The Bestiaries tell us that the ant stores grain for the winter. When doing so, the ant makes sure to break the grain in two so that it will not germinate and thus become useless as food. This symbolizes proper Bible interpretation. Just as the ant splits the grain, so too do scholars need to separate the literal meaning from the spiritual meanings. 3. According to the Bestiaries, during harvest time, the ant climbs the grain stocks and separates the wheat from the barley, taking only the wheat. He rejects barley because it is the food for cattle. This is symbolic of Christians refusing to follow after heresy.
ANTELOPE – 1. The Bestiaries tell us that the antelope is a wild animal that can never be caught. Its only weakness is when it becomes thirsty. It will go to the Euphrates River to drink. While there, it cannot help but to play in the Herecine trees lining the banks of the river. On rare occasions, an antelope’s antlers will get stuck in the trees. As it struggles to get free, the antelope lets out loud cries of despair. Hearing the wailing cries of the antelope, hunters easily track it down and kill it. The story symbolizes the deadly nature of pursuing worldly pleasure. 2. The Bestiaries tell us that the antelope has two horns. These horns are sharp and shaped like saws. The antelope can use them to cut through dense brush. The horns symbolize the Old and New Testaments, which Christians can use to set themselves free from worldly pleasures.
(NOTE: This animal should not be confused with the modern day antelope.)
APE – The Bestiaries tell us that a female ape has two offspring; one she loves, the other she hates. She carries the one she loves in front of her while the one she hates is forced to cling to her back. When the ape is in danger, she will drop the offspring she loves so as to get away. The offspring on her back manages to survive. The female ape symbolizes Satan who will show interest in and coddle his offspring. But Satan’s affections are deceptive and will always lead to death. The offspring on the ape’s back are Christians seeking after God. 2. If the ape is bound with chains, it symbolizes a conquered Satan. 3. Lust. 4. Cunning. 5. Cruelty. 6. Fraud.
BASILISK – 1. The basilisk symbolizes sin and Satan. According to the Bestiaries, the basilisk is a mythical creature said to spring from an egg accidentally laid in manure by a chicken. The egg is then hatched by a frog or snake. It’s body is part rooster with a snake’s tail and, depending on the account, sometimes contains parts of a frog. Its name, basiliscus, is Greek for “little king”. This is appropriate because the basilisk is said to be the king of the serpents and is around six inches in length. The basilisk is dangerous because its stare can kill a man, its smell can kill snakes and fire from its mouth can kill birds. In some older Bible translations the basilisk actually appears in Psalm 91:13. “Thou shalt tread upon the adder and the basilisk...the lion and the dragon” (KJV). The basilisk is usually portrayed under the feet of Jesus.
BAT – The bat symbolizes sin and rebellion because it lives for the night, a time of mischief and rebellion. It would be during the Middle Ages that bat wings were added to the caricature of Satan, giving him a more rebellious appearance.
BEAR – 1. The bear symbolizes evil and cruelty. This can be seen in two Bible stories. The first account is found in II Kings 2:24 where a group of children call the prophet Elisha names. God protects Elisha’s integrity by sending two female bears that promptly eat the children. The second account is in Daniel 7:5, which likens the evil kingdom of Persia to a bear. 2. The bear symbolizes regeneration and reformation. The Bestiaries revealed that bear cubs were born without shape. It would be the mother bear that would give them their shape by licking them. In the same sense, Jesus helps to reshape and regenerate the sinner.
BEAVER – The beaver symbolizes the pursuit of holiness. The Bestiaries teach that the beaver’s private parts have medicinal value which lead to it being hunted. It is said that the beaver, upon recognizing the intent of the hunter, will castrate himself, leaving the sack for the hunter. In this way the beaver will manage to stay alive. If the beaver ever encounters another hunter, it will show the hunter it has been castrated and will again avoid death. This story symbolizes a Christian who sacrifices everything to pursue holiness. When Satan sees that the Christian has nothing of value, he leaves the person alone.
BEE / BEE HIVE – 1. The bee is symbolic of tireless activity. It represents a good work ethic and being diligent at a task. 2. Because the worker bees do not mate it symbolizes virginity and chastity. 3. Because the bee appears to die in the winter and reappear in the summer, it symbolizes rebirth. 4. The bee’s hard work is connected to the beehive, which symbolizes order. 5. The bee represents the Christian and the beehive symbolizes the church. 6. The Bestiaries teach that bees never sleep thus symbolizing vigilance.
BIRDS – 1. Birds represent human souls. 2. If a bird is pictured with a Chi Rho symbol, it symbolizes the soul meditating on Jesus Christ. 3. If birds are drinking, they symbolize souls drinking the water of life. 4. A bird drinking from a chalice surrounded by vines symbolizes the Lord’s Supper. 5. If a bird is perched on a vine then the soul is abiding in Christ. 6. If the bird has an olive branch in its beak it symbolizes the story of Noah and the great flood (Genesis 6 – 8). 7. If the bird is carrying food, it represents the story of Elijah (I Kings 17:1-7).
BLACKBIRD – The blackbird is often used to symbolize sin and Satan due to its black color and melodious, enticing song.
BOAR – The boar symbolizes ferocity and lust.
BUTTERFLY – 1. The butterfly symbolizes the resurrection. The butterfly’s three stages, caterpillar, chrysalis (inside the cocoon) and the butterfly, represent the three stages of a Christian’s life: life, death and resurrection. 2. The butterfly symbolizes regeneration, as people’s old lives (caterpillar) become new (butterfly) when they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
CALADRIUS (CHARADRIUS alt. sp.) – The Bestiaries speak of this mythical, all white bird as living in the king’s house. If the bird is placed in front of a sick person and looks at the person, he or she will get well. The caladrius opens its beak and miraculously takes upon itself the person’s sickness. It then flies up towards the sun. As it flies upward, the sickness burns away. If, however, the bird looks away from the sick individual, the person will die. This story is symbolic of Jesus, who took our sins upon Himself and died on the cross so that we may live.
CAMEL – 1. The camel symbolizes temperance because of the long length of time a camel can go without water. 2. The hair of the camel is a symbol of John the Baptist, who wore camel hair while preaching in the desert (Matthew 3:4).
CENTAUR – 1. A mythical creature with the body of a horse and the head, arms and chest of a man. The centaur symbolizes the evil passions and desires of humanity. 2. A centaur with a bow and arrow was called Sagittarius. It symbolizes the fiery darts of the wicked/Satan.
CHIMERA – A symbol of destruction, terror and alarm. It is a legendary creature with the head and legs of a lion, body and head of a goat, and the tail of a dragon or snake.
COOT – The Bestiaries tell us that the coot is an intelligent bird. It is not known to fly about but often stays in one place. Its nest is found in the middle of water, sometimes atop a rock. When a storm begins to form, it immediately returns to its nest or dives underwater. The story symbolizes the Christian who remains faithful to the church by refusing to chase after heresy.
CRANE – 1. The Bestiaries tell us that cranes gather together every night to sleep. While the group sleeps, one crane keeps watch. To keep from falling asleep, it grabs a stone in one foot and raises it above the other. If the bird falls asleep, it drops the stone onto it’s own foot, waking itself. This story is full of symbolism. The stone is Jesus and the claw is a person’s alert mind. Should the person ever become sleepy with sin, Christ will arouse them out of their slumber. 2. Loyalty. 3. Good works. 4. Monastic life.
CROCODILE – 1. The crocodile symbolizes dissimulation and hypocrisy. 2. The crocodile is used interchangeably with the dragon in the Bible.
DOG – 1. The Bestiaries tell us that dogs are able to heal their wounds by licking them. It is this healing ability that led to the belief that if a dog is placed beside a sick person, the person will be cured of his or her wounds, even if the wounds are internal. The dog healing its wounds is symbolic of people confessing their sins. 2. The Bestiaries tell us that if a dog, while carrying a piece of meat across a river, sees his own it will drop the meat it is carrying to try to retrieve the meat seen in the reflection. The dropped meat is symbolic of foolish people giving up the blessings God has given them to go after sinful desires. In the end, the illusion of happiness in sin dissipates, and they are left with nothing. 3. The Bestiaries, as well as the Bible, tell us how a dog likes to return to its vomit. This is symbolic of a person who continues to return to his or her sins. 4. The dog is symbolic of fidelity, loyalty and watchfulness. Because the dog is a symbol of fidelity, it is sometimes portrayed in the laps of a newly married couple. 5. If the image is of three dogs, it represents the mercy, truth and justice of Jesus. 6. Four dogs represent truth, justice, mercy and peace. 7. If the image is of two dogs fighting, it can symbolize two theologians quarreling. 8. A dog can symbolize orthodoxy [right doctrine]. 9. A dog pictured biting his tail is symbolic of Satan, who hounded Judas to betray Jesus to His death.
DOLPHIN – 1. The dolphin symbolizes redemption. Ancient legends tell of the dolphin ferrying souls into the afterlife. Dolphins in this capacity are pictured with the dead riding on their backs into the afterlife.
2. The dolphin is sometimes connected with the story of Jonah. The story was used by Jesus to illustrate His Resurrection (Matthew 12:38-41). It is easy to see how the dolphin, already connected with the afterlife, would be substituted for the whale once Jesus made the connection between Jonah and the afterlife. 3. If the dolphin is portrayed with an anchor, it is symbolic of Christ’s guidance.
DONKEY (Ass) – 1. The donkey symbolizes fulfillment of prophecy. This is found in several events in the Bible. The most memorable instance is Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey (Luke 19:28-40) as prophesied by Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9). Another instance is the donkey that talked to Balaam (Numbers 22:22-35). 2. The donkey symbolizes defilement. 3. If the donkey is pictured with the ox, it is most likely in the nativity scene. This is either for historical accuracy or could be symbolic that all animals paid their respects to God who had come to earth as a child.
DOVE – 1. The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The dove is the only shape ever given to the Holy Spirit. It is one of the few symbols that has retained both its appearance and its meaning from the beginning of Christianity to the present day. The dove appeared at Jesus’ baptism where it descended from Heaven and rested upon Him (John 1:32). 2. “Seven doves have been used from the earliest of times as symbols of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. They may be shown holding scrolls in their beaks, each scroll bearing the Latin name of the virtue or gift. In stained glass they are often shown surrounding the Glorified Savior, each dove surrounded by…rays of glory.”2 3. Doves also symbolize purity, restoration and peace. This is demonstrated in the story of Noah, when the dove brought back an olive branch, showing God’s renewed peace towards humanity (Genesis 8). This form of the dove is seen frequently on burial markers symbolizing eternal peace. 4. If the dove is shown hovering over a saint or resting on the saint’s shoulder, particularly if the saint is holding a scroll or manuscript, the dove symbolizes divine inspiration. 5. A dove proceeding from the mouth of a dying martyr symbolizes the person’s soul departing the body and heading towards Heaven. 6. The dove can symbolize a Christian. Matthew 10:16 commands believers to be as harmless as doves. This interpretation of the dove was very popular in the art of the catacombs. 7. The Bestiaries tell us of different colors of doves. Each color has a special meaning: a red dove for the blood Jesus shed to redeem us; a speckled dove for the twelve prophets; a gold dove for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to worship the false god; a light blue dove for the prophet Elisha; a black dove for vague sermons; a gray dove for Jonah; and a white dove for John the Baptist. 8. If a dove with a three-rayed halo is hovering over a body of water, it symbolizes Creation.
DRAGON (Serpent) – 1. The dragon symbolizes Satan, that crafty serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to sin for the first time against God. In paintings, he is depicted as the main enemy of God. Often the dragon is portrayed as being killed by the ArchangelMichael, who threw him out of Heaven (Revelation 12:7). 2. The Bestiaries tell us a great deal about dragons. Their great strength is in their tails, not their teeth. They will wait in hiding until their prey comes by, grab them and strangle them. Satan is likened to a dragon because of its crafty nature. The dragon has a high crest on its head and a small mouth. The high crest is its crown of pride. When it flies, it stirs up the air, making the air glisten. This is like Satan, who makes himself appear as an angel of light. 3. The dragon symbolizes paganism. “In his ‘Ecclesiastical History’ Eusebius relates that Constantine caused himself to be depicted piercing a dragon of paganism with his lance.”3
DUCK – 1. The duck symbolizes gossip. 2. A duck that is carved into church doors is there as a reminder to worshippers to enter quietly so as not to distract others trying to worship.
EAGLE – 1. The eagle is symbolic of the resurrection and of renewal (Isaiah 40:31). The Bestiaries state that the eagle, when it gets old, loses its good eyesight and its feathers become heavy and ragged. The eagle flies high into the sky towards the sun. When it gets close to it, the sun burns off the old feathers and the film from the eagle’s old eyes. Upon falling to the earth, the eagle plunges into the water three times, which renews it to full health. 2. The eagle is a symbol of St. John, referring to the prophecy in Ezekiel 1:5,10 dealing with the four living creatures. John was likened to the eagle because he aspired to soar ever higher seeking the truths of God.
EGG – The egg symbolizes the resurrection because hatchlings break free of their eggs just as Jesus broke free from the grave.
ELEPHANT – 1. The elephant symbolizes chastity because it was thought that the elephant showed no sign of passion.
2. The Bestiaries tell us that the elephant symbolizes the fall of man because it was believed that the elephant had no knee joints. If an elephant fell, it required assistance to get back on its feet. A large elephant would try to lift it, but fail. Then twelve elephants would try, but also fail. Finally, a small elephant would try and succeed. The fallen elephant symbolizes a person fallen into sin. The single, large elephant symbolizes the Law of Moses which cannot help the person. The twelve elephants are the twelve prophets of the Old Testament who also cannot help the person. The little elephant symbolizes Jesus, who easily raises the person out of sin. 3. The thick skin of the elephant is symbolic of the stubborn sinner. 4. The ivory tusks of the elephant symbolize purity. 5. The elephant, if ridden by an angel, represents the power of God. 6. The elephant, if ridden by Peter, symbolizes the church going forth to conquer the world.
ERMINE – 1. The ermine is a symbol of nobility and royalty because kings wore white coats made of ermine fur. 2. The ermine is a symbol of purity and virginity because, according to legend, the ermine would rather die than ruin its pure white coat.
FALCON – 1. The falcon symbolizes evil because the wild falcon is a predator bird that attacks other birds. 2. The domestic falcon, often used for hunting, is considered a symbol of a Christian conversion, going from being a pagan (wild) to a Christian (domestic).
FISH – The fish is a very early Christian symbol (one of the first). The fish is an acrostic. Each letter in the Greek word for fish (ichthus) represents another word. The ichthus fish is one of the first Christian creeds:
(i) – (Iasous) – Jesus
(ch) – (Christos) – Christ
(th) – (Theos) – God’s
(u) – (Uios) – Son
(s) – (Sotar) – Savior
The fish was used to show the initiated few that you were a Christian. If you walked past the home of a pagan and saw a fish symbol outside the door, it meant a funeral would happen that day. If the house were the home of a Christian, it meant a Bible study would take place there that evening. It was also used in speech. If I met you in the marketplace and I thought you were a Christian I would say, “Ichthus?” If you were a pagan, you would point me in the direction of the local fish market. If you were a Christian, you would respond “Ichthus!” We were then safe to discuss Christian matters.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no right way to “point” the direction of the fish. The symbolism is in the fish itself, not the direction it is pointing.
FLY – 1. Because the fly spreads disease and death, it is symbolic of sin and death. 2. The fly symbolizes Satan, who is referred to as Beelzebub, which in Hebrew means “lord of the flies”.
FOX – With its crafty nature, the fox is a perfect symbol for Satan who is always on the prowl, looking for whoever he may devour (Song of Songs 2:12). The Bestiaries tell of the fox deceiving its prey by playing dead. It rolls in red clay to look bloody. Then it lies lifeless until a bird comes along to eat the carcass. At that moment the fox springs to life and devours the bird.
FROG – 1. Because of the frog’s connection to the plagues of Egypt (Exodus 8:6), frogs are symbolic of demonic workings and sin. 2. The frog is symbolic of heretics because of its continuous croaking. 3. The frog hibernates in the winter and reappears in the summer, symbolizing the Resurrection.
GARGOYLE - A mythical creature representing evil passions driven out of sinful man by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Gargoyles are often seen as statues in the architecture of French cathedrals. The are on the exteriors of the churches because they have been driven out of the church by Jesus.
GOAT – 1. The goat is a symbol of the wicked and unrepentant sinner who will be separated from God on judgment day (Matthew 25:32). 2. If the goat is shown together with a sheep, it is symbolic of Jews and Gentile Christians. 3. If the goat is shown climbing the mountainside looking for food, it symbolizes the pursuit of Heaven. 4. A goat that is stationary and appears to be chewing is symbolic of meditation.
GOLDFINCH – The goldfinch symbolizes victory over death. It has an interesting diet of eating thorns and other brambly seeds. In art, the goldfinch is found being held in the hand of Jesus when He was a small child. It is a foreshadowing of the pain Jesus would have to suffer on the cross and the victory He would have over it.
GOOSE – 1. The goose symbolizes providence and vigilance. 2. The Bestiaries tell us that geese have an excellent sense of smell. They can smell a person better than any other animal. This symbolizes a wise person discerning the good or bad reputation of another person.
GRASSHOPPER (Locust) 1. The grasshopper is a symbol of judgment because it is connected with the plagues of Egypt (Exodus 10). 2. The grasshopper held in the hands of Jesus is symbolic of a converted soul, a person who has been wild and destructive but is now under control.
GRIFFIN – 1. The griffin is a fabled creature that possesses the parts of great predator animals. It has the wings and head of an eagle and the body and legs of a lion. It is a perfect symbol of Satan, the great predator of the Christian. 2. Because of the griffin’s twofold nature, it symbolizes Jesus and His twofold nature: fully God and fully man.
HARPY – A harpy is a fabled creature that symbolizes evil, selfishness and pillaging. It has the head and bust of a woman and the body of a vulture.
HAWK – 1. The hawk, as a sharp-eyed bird, symbolizes watchfulness. 2. The hawk, as a predator bird, symbolizes death.
HEN – The hen symbolizes Jesus who said “...How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings...” (Matthew 23:37).
HERON – The Bestiaries suggest that the heron is the wisest of all birds. It never beds down in the same place. It stays close to where food is present. When a storm comes, it quickly takes flight and soars above the storm clouds. This symbolizes a person who spiritually flies high above life’s storms.
HORSE – 1. The horse is connected with lust based on Jeremiah 5:8. 2. “The horse is sometimes regarded as an emblem of courage and generosity. In the Roman catacombs it ordinarily denotes the swiftness of life. Sometimes the palm branch of victory is placed over its head.”4 When used in the catacombs, the words “in peace” are printed under the palm. 3. The horse is sometimes seen depicted with a saint. In each instance the horse is involved in the saints death. Thus, the horse represents martyrdom in these instances. 4. A horse symbolizes a Christian. When portrayed, the horse will have a Chi Rho on its hindquarters.
HYDRUS (Hydra) – 1. In the Bestiaries there are many different descriptions of this mythical animal, from a variety of water snakes (most probable) to the hydra which has numerous heads (often nine). The Bestiaries tell how the hydrus covers itself in mud and then intentionally moves into the path of a crocodile (its enemy) to be eaten by it. Once in the belly of the beast, it proceeds to eat the vital organs, thus destroying the crocodile from the inside out. This is symbolic of Jesus who went to Hell after His death and destroyed its power of death.
HYENA – 1. The hyena symbolizes heretics. It feasts on decaying animals just as the heretic feasts on decaying truth (false doctrine). 2. The hyena is a symbol of an unstable man because the Bestiaries teach that the hyena is actually able to change its sex.
IBEX – The Bestiaries teach that the ibex is a sort of mountain goat. It has two large horns on its head. The horns are so strong that the ibex is able to jump from a mountain and land on it’s horns and not be injured. The ibex symbolizes a person who depends on the two horns (Old and New Testaments) to overcome the problems of the world.
IBIS – The Bestiaries tell of a mythical bird called the ibis which lives along the Nile river. It feeds only on dead fish that float to the surface. It cannot go for fresh fish because it does not know how to swim and does not wish to learn. The bird itself is incredibly filthy. It’s stench is enough to drive away snakes, allowing it to eat the snake eggs. The Ibis is symbolic of the unrepentant sinner who refuses to enter the water of baptism and go after the fruits of the Spirit.
JAY (Jackdaw) – The Bestiaries describe the jay as a talkative bird that, when captured, can be taught to talk. If the jay is ever let loose, it becomes even louder and more talkative then before. The jay is symbolic of gossips who cannot keep their mouth shut in spreading untruths.
KITE – 1. The Bestiaries describe the kite as a bird that perches near meat butchering shops to feast on the leftover meat. The kite leaves larger birds alone, but can take down smaller, domesticated birds. The kite is symbolic of any person who delights in gluttonous eating. 2. The kite is symbolic of Satan who preys on the weak.
LAMB [Angus Dei] – 1. The lamb is most frequently used to represent Jesus Christ (John 1:29). In this sense it is referred to as the Agnus Dei which is Latin meaning “Lamb of God”. It’s occurrence ranges from almost the earliest days of Christianity, throughout all the intervening centuries, down to the present time.”5 The lamb is portrayed many ways: with a halo; in a victory wreath; carrying a banner of victory; seated on a book with seven seals; or standing on a hill with four streams of water flowing from it, representing the four Gospels. (Examples have been found of the lamb wearing a crown and on the cross. However, this form is greatly discouraged, as it is believed the actual human form of Christ should always be on the cross.) 2. A picture of a lamb surrounded by twelve sheep represents Jesus with his Apostles. If the lamb is with any number of sheep, the sheep represent the church. 3. A picture with a single lamb and shepherd is symbolic of the sinner and Jesus. 4. “The Lamb of the Apocalypse with the seven horns and seven eyes that indicate the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is occasionally met with in mediaeval art; but the poetic imagery of the Book of the Revelation does not readily lend itself to material representation, and of this ‘the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne’ is but one instance of many that might be referred to.”6 [Paschal Lamb] – 1. The Paschal Lamb symbolizes the Old Testament. The Paschal Lamb is the lamb sacrificed during the Jewish Passover. 2. Because it is a sacrificial lamb it symbolizes atonement (forgiveness) from sins.
LARK – The lark symbolizes priesthood because it sings when flying towards Heaven.
LEOPARD – 1. The leopard is likened to evil power (Daniel 7:6). 2. Because it is a predator, it symbolizes Satan.
LEVIATHAN – 1. The leviathan symbolizes Satan and destruction. It is spoken of as a sea monster in Psalm 104:25-26. In Isaiah 27:1 the leviathan is given the characteristics of the serpent (Satan) and is sought out to be punished by God. 2. Leviathan can be symbolic of the whale that swallowed Jonah, but due to the leviathan being depicted with sharp teeth and dragging people into the depths, this is a poor interpretation of the symbol.
LION – 1. The Lion represents Jesus. The Bestiaries state that the lion can discern when hunters pick up its trail. It uses its tail to obliterate its tracks to escape. This is symbolic of Jesus who concealed His Divinity to all but His followers. 2. A symbol of Jesus being the “Lion of Judah” based on Revelation 5:5. In this instance the lion must have a halo. 3. The lion symbolizes alertness and watchfulness. The Bestiaries say that the lion sleeps with its eyes open. The Bestiaries connect this characteristic to two passages in the Bible. The first passage is Psalm 121:4 which suggests that God never sleeps or slumbers as He watches over Israel. The second passage is Song of Songs 5:2 which describes a person sleeping but whose heart is still awake. Hulme suggests that “This idea probably had some influence in the selection of the twelve flanking lions of Solomon’s throne.”7 4. The lion symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus. The The Bestiaries state that lion cubs were born dead. After three days, the lioness would bring the cubs back to life. The passage of Genesis 49:9 is referenced, which suggests the raising of the lion. The Bestiaries differ on how the cubs are raised; some suggest the cubs are resurrected by the breath of the lioness, some say by the breath of the lion, and still others by the roar of the lion. 5. The lion is symbolic of Saint Mark. The way to distinguish Mark’s lion from other forms is that the Lion representing God will have a three rayed nimbus (halo) symbolizing Divinity. Mark’s nimbus will not have the three rays. 6. The lion symbolizes Satan who goes around like a roaring lion, seeking who he may devour (I Peter 5:8).
LIZARD – The lizard symbolizes the power of the Bible, God’s Word. The Bestiaries suggest that when a lizard is old and blind it points its head toward the rising sun and its sight is fully restored.
MAGPIE – The magpie symbolizes evil misfortune.
MERMAID – 1. The mermaid symbolizes deception. The mermaid is a symbol of the person who has a flattering tongue, but whose deeds are treacherous and deceptive. 2. The mermaid symbolizes Jesus’ twofold nature of being fully human and fully God.
NYMPHS – 1. Nymphs symbolize the pleasures of the world. 2. Temptation.
ORPHAN BIRD – The Bestiaries describe the mythical orphan bird as a bird with the neck, chest and crest of a peacock, the beak of an eagle, the body of a crane and the legs of a swan. Its wings are said to be black, red and white. When the bird lays her eggs, she lays them right on the water. The eggs with good chicks float on the surface while the eggs with bad chicks sink to the bottom. When the eggs hatch, the good chicks join their mother. She immediately takes them to meet their father. The bad chicks are forced to live in darkness and despair. The story has deep symbolism. The mother bird is Jesus. The eggs symbolize all of the people on the earth. When the eggs hatch, the good people stay close to Him. The bad people sink in their sins. On judgment day, Jesus takes the good people to God the Father.
OSTRICH – The ostrich is a large bird that cannot fly. The Bestiaries tell us that the ostrich can eat anything, including metal. It is said that the ostrich knows when it is time to lay her eggs by watching for the star Virgilia to rise. When it lays the eggs, it covers them with sand and then leaves them to hatch on their own. Like the ostrich, Christians are encouraged to leave the world behind and focus their attention on Heaven.
OTTER – The symbol of the otter represents Jesus’ descent into Hell to fully defeat death and Satan. “This symbol was borrowed from early pagan writers, such as Pliny and Plutarch. The otter was said to coat itself with mud, which dries, forming a hard protecting
coat. Then it rushes down the throat of a crocodile, and slays it by attacking it from within.”8
OWL – 1. The owl symbolizes mourning and desolation because it is a bird that lives for the darkness. There is a good chance that the Christians were already pre-disposed to dislike the owl because it was a sign of a bad omen among pagans. The Bestiaries tell us that the owl is a filthy bird, because it pollutes it’s own nest with its dung. It loves to live around tombs and decaying structures. During the day, when birds find out where an owl is hiding, they cry out to betray its hiding place. 2. The owl represents the Jews who have rejected Jesus. 3. The owl symbolizes sinners who have given up living in the light and have chosen the darkness instead. 4. The owl can symbolize Jesus, who has gone into the darkness in pursuit of those living in darkness. 5. The owl symbolizes a righteous man who does not want to step into the light of pride, but hides in the darkness of humility.
OX – 1. “The ox was emblematic of patience and strength, and in the writings of some of the early Fathers it is accepted as a symbol of Christ the true sacrifice; secondarily of prophets, apostles and saints slain for the sake of Christ; and in the third place, of all who patiently bear the yoke, and labor in silence for the good of others.”9 2. If the ox has wings, it is the symbol of St. Luke. 3. If the ox is pictured with the donkey, it is most likely in the nativity scene. This is either going for historical accuracy or could be symbolic that all animals paid their respects to God who had come to earth as a child.
PANTHER – The Bestiaries tell us that the panther, after catching its prey, will retire to its cave and sleep for three days. After three days it lets out a great roar, emitting a wonderfully smelling fragrance that attracts all animals to it. When a dragon (the panther’s only enemy) smells the fragrance of the panther, it must retreat to its den, repulsed by the smell. The panther symbolizes Jesus, who drew all of humanity to Him. Satan is the dragon, unable to come near to Christ. Jesus spent three days in the tomb, then let out a triumphal cry, conquering death. The sweet words of Jesus call all of humanity to Him.
PARTRIDGE – The Bestiaries tell us that the partridge steals the eggs of other birds and hatches the young for itself. However, when the birds hatch, they hear their real mother’s cry and immediately return to their rightful mother. The partridge is a symbol of Satan who wishes to steal all souls from God. However, when sinners hear the voice of God and recognize Him as their true Father, they return to Him.
PEACOCK – 1. The peacock, in representations from the early days of the Christian church, symbolizes eternal life. The peacock is sometimes portrayed in art as drinking from a vase. In this case, it symbolizes a Christian drinking the waters of eternal life. 2. The peacock symbolizes the Resurrection of our Lord because it sheds it’s old feathers every year and grows newer ones each year. When symbolizing the Resurrection, it is sometimes portrayed standing upon a ball or globe. 3. The peacock symbolizes immortality. The Bestiaries say that the peacock’s flesh is incorruptible. It is so tough that it will not rot and is impossible to digest. It is a popular symbol on burial markers in the catacombs in Rome. 4. The peacock is a symbol of vanity because of its brilliant colors and its strutting about. 5. When a peacock is feeding on grapevines it symbolizes the Lord’s Supper.
PELICAN – The pelican is a symbol of the Atonement. The symbol of the pelican, unlike many early Christian symbols, is almost exclusively Christian. The symbol came about as the bird was observed by ancient naturalists. When viewing the pelican, they noticed it had a red tip on its long bill. When the pelican started to prune its feathers, it appeared to be ripping open its breast so as to feed its young with its own blood. The Bestiaries greatly exaggerate this myth. They tell us that the young pelicans will strike at their parents.The pelican strikes back so hard it kills the young birds. After three days, the female pelican pierces her side or breast and lets her blood fall on the dead pelicans. The blood revives them to life. The pelican story was a The pelican story was a perfect symbol for the Atonement, where Jesus allowed Himself to be pierced so that we may live. The pelican was a very popular symbol during the Middle Ages.
PHOENIX – 1. A symbol of Jesus’ Resurrection. The phoenix symbol was very popular during the early church. Jewish legend tells us that the phoenix is a bird that will not die because it did not eat of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. The Bestiaries tell us that the bird (resembling an eagle) lives for four to five hundred years (some accounts read one thousand years). When it senses death is near it makes a nest out of sticks and spices and lays upon it. The sticks catch fire by the sun and the phoenix is consumed in the flames. After the fire burns out, the phoenix rises again from the ashes to live another full life.
“The Greek word for date-palm is ‘phonix’, and the ashes of an old date-palm tree are thought to be excellent fertilizer for seedling palms. This is supposed by some authorities to be the basis of the legend. See Psalm 92:12. In early Byzantine work, so rich in symbolism, the date-palm is often substituted for the phoenix.”10 It is worth noting that “Tertillian, one of the early writers of the Christian church, in all good
faith accepts it as a most marked and evident symbol of the Resurrection and of eternity. The phoenix is represented in some of the earliest Christian mosaics in the churches of Rome, and often has a star-shaped nimbus [halo].”11 2. The phoenix symbolizes newness of life because those who die (fall asleep believing in Jesus) shall rise again to a new life.
PIG (Swine) – 1. Pigs are symbolic of gluttony. 2. Sensuality. 3. Pigs are mentioned three times in the Bible, each time in a negative light. The first time is in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:13-32). The second is when demons were cast into a whole herd of pigs (Matthew 8:28-34). The third is when Jesus cautioned his disciples not to cast pearls before pigs (Matthew 7:6).
QUAIL – 1. A quail with a scroll or inkhorn symbolizes divine authorship. 2. The Bestiaries tell us that the quail likes to fly high into the heavens. However, when a quail flies too low, close to the earth, it is attacked by the hawk. This is symbolic of the Christian who gets too close to worldly things and is attacked by Satan.
RABBIT (Hare) – 1. The rabbit is used to symbolize lust. 2. The rabbit symbolizes a Christian who, while completely helpless like the rabbit, puts his/her faith in the protection of Jesus. 3. A rabbit being hunted is a symbol of the persecuted church. 4. A rabbit is easily startled. A rabbit portrayed on the run symbolizes a Christian fleeing temptation.
RAM – 1. Because of the ram’s protective nature of the herd, it is symbolic of Jesus. 2. A ram shown driving off its enemy is symbolic of Jesus driving off Satan. 3. The ram is seen in the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22). Instead of sacrificing Isaac, God provided a ram to be the sacrifice. In this way the ram is symbolic of Jesus being the substitute for us. 4. If the illustration contains seven ram’s horns, it symbolizes the fall of Jericho.
RAT – The rat is a symbol of destruction and evil.
RAVEN – 1. The raven is a symbol of unrest. 2. It is a symbol of the indifferent sinner. The symbolism is connected to the story of Noah. Jewish legend tells how the raven had white feathers, but upon not returning to the ark, its feathers were turned black. 3. The raven symbolizes God’s providence. When Elijah was in hiding in the wilderness, God sent ravens with meat to feed him (I Kings 17:6). 4. In modern times, a raven is the symbol of ill-fortune. 5. The Bestiaries tell us that when a raven begins to eat a corpse, it starts by pecking out the eyes so as to get to the brain. This symbolizes the acts of Satan, who sets out to destroy a person’s ability to perceive sin. 6. According to the writings of St. Augustine, every time the raven speaks it says “cras, cras” meaning, in Latin, “Tomorrow, tomorrow.” In this sense the raven symbolizes Satan, who is trying to get every non-believer to put off making a commitment to Jesus until tomorrow.
SALAMANDER - According to the Bestiaries, the salamander is a cold animal that cannot be harmed by fire. If it is put into a pot of boiling water, the water immediately becomes cold. The salamander became a symbol of the Christian who, by grace, resists temptation.
SAND DOLLAR – A relatively new symbol, the sand dollar symbolizes Jesus. On the back is an image of the Poinsettia, a symbol of Jesus’ birth. There are five holes, four small and one large, symbolizing the wounds Jesus received on the cross. The flower on the front resembles a lily symbolizing Jesus’ Resurrection. When the sand dollar is broken open, five bones fall out. Each bone is in the shape of a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit within.
SATYR – A symbol of the children of Satan. It is a fabled creature with the head of a man and the legs of a goat. The connection is derived from Matthew 25:32 where Christians are likened to lambs, and non-Christians are likened to goats.
SAWFISH – 1. The Bestiaries describe this mythic beast as a large fish with wings and a sharp crest. Sometimes it uses its sharp crest to destroy the bottoms of passing ships. It takes great sport in chasing after ships and is even able to stop the wind from blowing so as to stop the ships from moving. This symbolizes Satan who withholds holy inspiration from humanity. 2. After a long chase, if the sawfish cannot catch the ship, it will give up and dive back into the sea. This symbolizes the person who starts out on the right path but then becomes distracted and pursues the ways of the world.
SCAPEGOAT – 1. A symbol of atonement. The sins of the nation were placed on the head of the scapegoat and it was turned loose into the wilderness to die for the sins of the people. 2. It was an early symbol of Jesus’ sacrificial death on behalf of all people.
SCORPION – 1. The scorpion symbolizes sin. 2. Rebuke. 3. Shame.
SHEEP – 1. Sheep symbolize Christians. 2. Twelve sheep symbolize the Twelve Apostles. 3. Sheep and goats mixed together symbolize the saved and the lost (Matthew 25:32).
SNAIL – 1. Because the snail takes everything it needs with it, it symbolizes contentment and being frugal. 2. Because the snail crawls from place to place,
its lowly movement symbolizes humility. 3. The slow movement of the snail symbolizes perseverance. 4. In ancient portrayals of the crucifixion, a snail is sometimes seen to the right of the cross. This symbolizes the repentant thief who waited until the very last minute to turn his life over to Jesus. 5. Each spring the snail breaks out of the doorway of its shell. This symbolizes the Resurrection.
SNAKE – 1. A snake pictured by itself represents that wicked serpent, Satan, who deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:14). 2. If the snake is pictured on a pole, it symbolizes healing and God’s mercy. The Israelites were wandering and complaining in the wilderness; in response, God caused poisonous snakes to strike and kill many of them (Numbers 21:4-9). When they repented of their sins, God commanded Moses to create a bronze snake; all who looked upon it were healed.
SPHINX – 1. The sphinx symbolizes silence, secrecy and mystery. It is a fabled creature with the head and chest of a woman, and body, feet and tail of a lion. 2. Because of the large sphinx statue in Egypt, it can symbolize Israel in Egypt and the flight out of Egypt.
SPIDER – A spider is symbolic of patience.
SQUIRREL – 1. A squirrel is symbolic of a Christian’s busy forethought of eternity. 2. Heavenly meditation.
STAG – 1. The stag symbolizes solitude and purity of life. When a stag has a cross in its antlers, it symbolizes a specific saint with whom its attributes are connected. 2. Two stags drinking symbolize baptism. 3. A stag being hunted symbolizes the persecution of Christians. 4. The Bestiaries say that the stag has a passion to destroy all types of snakes even though it is afraid of every other type of creature. The stag symbolizes the trampling of the snake or dragon, just as Jesus destroyed the power of Satan.
STORK – 1. The stork is symbolic of the Annunciation to Mary that she would bear the Christ child. The symbolism is based on the stork returning from its migration to announce the beginning of spring. 2. The Bestiaries teach that the stork grinds its’ beak together, making a grinding noise. This is symbolic of the person who, through the gnashing of teeth, confesses his/her sins. 3. Vigilance. 4. Holiness.
SWALLOW – 1. A representation of the swallow in the Middle Ages symbolizes the Incarnation of Jesus. It frequently appears in paintings of the Annunciation and the Nativity. 2. The swallow is a symbol of the Resurrection, as it appears every spring to announce its arrival. 3. The Bestiaries tell how the swallow spends a great deal of time in the air catching its food. In this sense it is like the Christian, who spends a great deal of time pursuing the things of Heaven. 4. The swallow’s young, always hungry and eager for the next meal, symbolize prayer of petition.
SWAN – 1. The swan is symbolic of the hypocrite because its plumage is pure white but underneath is black skin. It also has beautiful wings but can hardly fly. 2. The swan symbolizes the end of one’s life. 3. A swan’s song symbolizes a last effort.
TIGER – 1. The tiger symbolizes cruelty, treachery and martyrdom. This was especially true for early Christians. Most of them knew of at least one Christian who had been thrown to the lions and tigers in the arenas because of his/her faith. 2. The tiger symbolizes vanity. The Bestiaries state that the best way to capture a tiger’s young is to distract it by placing reflective glass balls in its path. The hunter grabs the young and sneaks away. If the tigress pursues the hunter, the hunter throws down a glass ball. The tigress, stopping to examine the sphere, mistakes her own image for that of her cub’s and stop the pursuit. Upon realizing her mistake, she again renews the pursuit. Again, the hunter throws down another reflective glass ball, again distracting the tigress. Satan does the same thing to believers by putting things that distract them in their paths to divert them from their goal of pursuing Jesus.
TURTLE DOVE – 1. The turtle dove symbolizes constancy. 2. It also symbolizes virginity and chastity based on its white color and peaceful nature. 3. The Bestiaries speak of the turtle dove only taking one mate during its lifetime. If that mate dies, it never takes another. This symbolizes the church’s dedication and faithfulness to Jesus. 4. Widowhood.
UNICORN – 1. The unicorn symbolizes purity and strength. This mythical creature is depicted as a snowy white animal with a horse’s head, a goat’s beard, an antelope’s legs and a lion’s tail. From the center of its head it has a single spiraling horn. 2. The unicorn enjoys solitude. This is symbolic of the monastic life. 3. Legend tells us that the only way to capture a unicorn is by placing a young, virgin girl in the woods. The unicorn, sensing her purity, will go to her and lay his head in her lap. The unicorn symbolizes Jesus Christ, His Incarnation and His sinless life. Jesus, as God, is uncontainable. But, Jesus humbled Himself and limited Himself to a human body.
VIPER – 1. A symbol of Satan. 2. Sin and evil. 3. Ingratitude.
VULTURE – 1. A symbol of evil. 2. The Bestiaries tell us that the female vulture does not need to mate to become pregnant. The vulture was used for centuries as natures proof that the miraculous
pregnancy of Mary could and did happen.
WOLF – 1. The wolf symbolizes Satan. The Bestiaries tell us that the wolf only hunts its victims at night. It amplifies its cry to frighten its victims. When attacking the sheepfold, it acts like a tame dog. It then attacks downwind so that the prey will not smell its foul breath. 2. The Bestiaries say that if a man sees a wolf first, the wolf loses its fierceness. But if a wolf sees a man first, the man loses his voice. If the man loses his voice, he must immediately take off all of his clothes and bang two rocks together so the wolf will not attack. The man taking off his clothes symbolizes baptism, being set free from sin. The rocks symbolize the man calling out to the saints for help. 3. The wolf symbolizes false doctrine and false prophets. 4. A hypocrite. 5. Famine. 6. Lust. 7. Cruelty, fraud, and deceit. 8. While usage of the wolf in the Bible is negative, the wolf does appear next to numerous saints, guarding them or bringing them food it has killed. It was thought that the wolf doing something good for a saint showed the power the saint had over evil. 9. The wolf symbolizes women of the night, as they take all of the treasures from their prey.
WOODPECKER – A woodpecker is a symbol of Satan because of its destructive nature.
WYVERN – The wyvern is symbolic of Satan. It is a mythical creature with wings, legs and head of a dragon and a barbed, coiled tail.
1. Ferguson, George, “Signs & Symbols in Christian Art,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 8.
2. Webber, F. R., “Church Symbolism,” (Cleveland: J. H. Jansen, 1934), p. 150.
3. Mâle, Emile, “The Gothic Image, Religious Art in France of the Thirteen Century,” (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958), p. 289.
4. Hulme, Edward, “Symbolism in Christian Art,” (Poole: Blandford Press, 1976), p. 170.
5. Ibid., p. 161.
6. Ibid., p. 163.
7. Idid., p. 165.
8. Webber, F. R., “Church Symbolism,” (Cleveland: J. H. Jansen, 1934), p. 80.
9. Hulme, Edward, “Symbolism in Christian Art,” (Poole: Blandford Press, 1976), p. 169.
10. Webber, F. R., “Church Symbolism,” (Cleveland: J. H. Jansen, 1934), p. 74-75.
11. Hulme, Edward, “Symbolism in Christian Art,” (Poole, Blandford Press, 1976), p. 184.