Happy Easter! Just in time, here’s part II of my series of birds in medieval European manuscripts. Today, religious and moral birds.
One of the best places to find birds is the genre known as bestiaries, compilations of animal lore that originated in ancient Greece and were later combined with Christian allegories. The images below are from the Aberdeen Bestiary; sorry about the low quality scans, but I couldn’t find any other complete bestiaries online. The Aberdeen Bestiary is one of the finest of its type, made in England around 1200.
In one of the opening illustrations God creates the fish and birds.
And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth under the firmament of heaven. And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth. And the evening and the morning were the fifth day’ (Genesis 1:20-23).
The next image illustrates the chapter on the fox, the false teacher who lures good Christians (the birds) into heresy:
The word vulpis, fox, is, so to say, volupis. For it is fleet-footed and never runs in a straight line but twists and turns. It is a clever, crafty animal. When it is hungry and can find nothing to eat, it rolls itself in red earth so that it seems to be stained with blood, lies on the ground and holds it breath, so that it seems scarcely alive. When birds see that it is not breathing, that it is flecked with blood and that its tongue is sticking out of its mouth, they think that it is dead and descend to perch on it. Thus it seizes them and devours them. The Devil is of a similar nature. For to all who live by the flesh he represents himself as dead until he has them in his gullet and punishes them. But to spiritual men, living in the faith, he is truly dead and reduced to nothing. Those who wish to do the Devil’s work will die, as the apostle says: ‘For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.’ (Romans, 8:13) And David says: ‘They shall go into the lower parts of the earth: they shall fall by the sword: they shall be a portion for foxes.’ (Psalms, 63:9-10)
The hoopoe represents the ideal parent-child relationship:
When the bird called the hoopoe sees that its parents have grown old and that their eyes are dim, it plucks out their old plumage and licks their eyes and keeps them warm, and its parents’ life is renewed. It as if the hoopoe said to them: ‘Just as you took pains in feeding me, I will do likewise for you.’
If birds, who lack reason, do as much for each other, how much more should men, who have the power of reason, support their parents in return; because the law says: ‘And he that curses his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death’ (Exodus, 21:17); it is as if he were guilty of parricide or matricide.
It is called heron, ardea, as if from ardua, meaning ‘high’, because of its capacity to fly high in the sky; it fears rain and flies above the clouds to avoid experiencing the storms they bring. A heron taking wing shows a storm is coming.
Many people call the heron Tantalus, after the king who betrayed the secrets of the gods. Rabanus says on this subject: ‘This bird can signify the souls of the elect, who fear the disorder of this world, lest they be caught up by chance in the storms of persecution stirred up by the Devil, and raise their minds, reaching above all worldly things to the tranquility of their home in heaven, where the countenance of God is forever to be seen.
Today we associate owls with wisdom, but they had completely different connotations for medieval people:
Isidore says of the owl: ‘The name owl, bubo, is formed from the sound it makes. It is a bird associated with the dead, weighed down, indeed, with its plumage, but forever hindered, too, by the weight of its slothfulness. It lives day and night around burial places and is always found in caves.’
On this subject Rabanus says: ‘The owl signifies those who have given themselves up to the darkness of sin and those who flee from the light of righteousness.’ As a result it is classed among the unclean creatures in Leviticus (see 11:16). Consequently, we can take the owl to mean any kind of sinner.
Many of the bestiary birds were based on real creatures and their actual behaviors, others were purely mythical. Probably the most well-known is the phoenix:
It lives for upwards of five hundred years, and when it observes that it has grown old, it erects a funeral pyre for itself from small branches of aromatic plants, and having turned to face the rays of the sun, beating its wings, it deliberately fans the flames for itself and is consumed in the fire. But on the ninth day after that, the bird rises from its own ashes.
Our Lord Jesus Christ displays the features of this bird, saying: ‘I have the power to lay down my life and to take it again’ (see John, 10:18). If, therefore, the phoenix has the power to destroy and revive itself, why do fools grow angry at the word of God, who is the true son of God, who says: ‘I have the power to lay down my life and to take it again’?
Birds also appear in the Bible itself, such as the raven and dove released by Noah after the flood. Depicted here in Yates Thompson 13, a 14th-century book of hours made in England.
To be honest, I have no idea what is happening in the illumination below, from the Macclesfield Psalter. It looks like a king and his adviser, probably David, who was believed to be the author of the Psalms. But what is the bird doing there? Is it just a bit of marginalia or is it integral to the story of the two figures? You can see the full image here, folio 161 (verso).
One of the most common Christian birds was the eagle that represented the Gospel of John the Evangelist John was thought to have received his inspiration directly from God, much as the eagle flies to the heavens. From the Aberdeen Bestiary’s eagle chapter:
The word ‘eagle’ represents the acute understanding of the saints. The same prophet, Ezekiel, when he described how he had seen the four evangelists in the form of animals, saw the fourth among them, that is, the one signifying John, as an eagle, which left the earth in flight; as John, on earth, penetrated the mysteries with his acute understanding by reflecting on the word. Likewise, those who still leave behind their earthly mind, seek heavenly things, as the eagle with John, through contemplation.
An evangelist symbol appears in each corner of this illumination from Yates Thompson 13: clockwise from top left, Matthew (the man/angel), John (eagle), Matthew (bull), Mark (lion). In the center is the Trinity, God the Father, Christ on the Cross, and between them the dove of the Holy Spirit.
Probably the most well-known of all medieval evangelist leaves, that in the magnificent Book of Kells (Trinity College Dublin, MS 58). John’s eagle is on the lower right, apparently clasping the gospel book in its talons.
The opening page of the Gospel of John from the equally spectacular Lindisfarne Gospels, made by Northumbrian monks during the early 8th century. Interestingly, John sits with a scroll while the eagle carries a codex.
In many cases the eagle is depicted assisting John by holding his pen case and ink bottle, as in the two illuminations below. The first is from a late 15th century French book of hours at the University of Texas at Austin, HRC 006. And don’t forget that the pen itself came from a bird, the pinna, or primary flight feather, was used to make quills.
15-century French book of hours. Columbia University Rare Book Library BP.096.
Doves are one of the oldest Christian symbols, with roots in the imagery of Judaism and other ancient cultures. Representing the Holy Spirit, they appear in many episodes of the life of Christ found in manuscripts. I particularly like the Annunciation, not least because Mary is frequently depicted reading. Below, Mary and the angel in a 15th-century French book of hours, University of Texas at Austin HRC 006. Of all the images in today’s post, this is my favorite.
Below, the Annunciation as depicted in a 13th-century French copy of The Golden Legend, a popular medieval book on the lives of various saints. I love that it looks like the dove is whispering the news in the Virgin’s ear, or maybe it’s just about to crash into her like a plate-glass window. Huntington Library HM 3027.
Three of the Gospel writers describe the Holy Spirit descending from heaven in the form of a dove at the Baptism of Christ.
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:13-17)
German antiphonary dated to 1350, Free Library of Philadelphia Lewis E M 042:11.
Late 13-century French psalter. Free Library of Philadelphia Widener 009.
13th-century Italian antiphonary. Free Library of Philadelphia Lewis E M 026:20-29.
Finally, the dove appears in images of the Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit to the disciples and the Virgin following the Resurrection. I find these images odd, as the Biblical story tells of “tongues of fire” appearing over each person.
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them (Acts 2:1-4)
Is there a reason why the dove was substituted for fire so often? Perhaps to maintain symbolic continuity throughout the cycle of illuminations? The image below is from the Free Library of Philadelphia Widener 009.
University of Texas at Austin HRC 006.
Below, the dove appears in an illustration of the Trinity. Late 15th or early 16th-century book of hours made in Flanders for an English patron, now at the Bodleian Library.