In the early days of Latin and Byzantine Christianity, as well as in the period of its full bloom in the Middle Ages, a prodigious number of representations of animals is found not only in monumental sculpture, but in illuminated manuscripts, in stained glass windows, and in tapestry as well. Three reasons may be given for this unexampled fondness for animal life.
The paintings of the first period, as seen in the Catacombs, show us, usually, the lamb accompanying the Good Shepherd, a representation of the Christian soul during its earthly life. Birds, too, appear either as simple decorative elements transmitted from antique paintings, or used symbolically as in Noah's dove, symbolical of the Christian soul released by death; the peacock, with its ancient meaning of immortality, and the phoenix, the symbol of apotheosis. The symbol of perhaps the widest distribution is the Ichthys [Fish], which since the second century has represented graphically the celebrated acrostic: "Jesous Christos Theou Uios Soter" [Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour], and so becomes the symbol of Christ in the Eucharist. Artistically, these various representations are somewhat crude, and show the decadence of the pagan art of the time.
After the recognition of the Church by Constantine I, the Apocalypse is the source from which are derived most of the decorative themes of Christian Art. The lamb is now the most important of these, and its meaning is either the same as before or, more frequently perhaps, it is symbolic of Christ the expiatory victim. The dove is the Holy Spirit, and the four animals that St. John saw in Heaven (Apoc., iv, v) are used as personifications of the Four Evangelists. Under the influence of Byzantine art, a great variety of fantastic animals, such as dragons, birds with human heads, winged lions, etc., entwined themselves around the decorative forms until foreign wars and the iconoclast movement brought this period of vigorous art to an end.
During the succeeding three centuries, we find merely unimportant artistic manifestations, and it is only in the Romanesque buildings that we find new types of animals. These are usually either purely fantastic or composite, that is, made up of elements of different species combined in one. Often, the subject grows out of foliage forms; and monsters are shown fighting and even devouring one another. In the spandrels of the entrance doorways, around the glorified Christ, the lion, the ox, the man, and the eagle are shown, holding the holy books. This is a favourite motif in the sculpture of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Sometimes the jaws of a monster figure the entrance of Hell, into which sinners are plunged.
With the beginning of the thirteenth century Gothic art affords the greatest number and the best representations of animal forms. The great cathedrals, especially those of the Isle of France, where sculpture reached its highest point of excellence, are a sort of encyclopedia of the knowledge of the time. They show, therefore, examples of all the then known animals, that is, whether by legend or experience. The bestiaries are fully illustrated in the cathedrals in the stone carving of the capitals, the parapets, and the tops of the buttresses, and in the woodwork of the stalls.
There are birds of prey, wild boars, and feline forms on the towers of Notre Dame de Paris; birds covered with draperies, and elephants at Reims; enormous oxen on the towers of Laon placed there in memory of the service of those animals during the construction of the Cathedral. With the animals of the country, domestic or wild, those of remote parts of the earth, known by a few specimens, are also represented: the lion, the elephant, apes, etc.; legendary animals also, like the unicorn, the basilisk, the dragon, and the griffin. Imaginary creatures are also frequent, and the gargoyles alone display a great variety. Viollet-le-Duc remarked that he does not know, in France, two gargoyles alike.
The symbolism which usually attaches to the various animals is derived for the most part from the bestiaries. Thus, for the lion, strength, vigilance, and courage; for the siren, voluptuousness; for the pelican, charity. The four animals which symbolize the leading characteristics of each of the Four Evangelists become more and more an accessory used to characterize the figure of the Evangelists themselves.
In the same way many saints, when not characterized by the instruments of their martyrdom, are accompanied by animals which identify them; as, St. Roche, with a dog; St. Hubert, with a stag; St. Jerome, with a lion; St. Peter, with a cock; St. Paul the Hermit, with a raven, etc. The Bible, also, gives some motives, as the ram of Isaac, the golden calf, the brazen serpent.
With the fourteenth century, animals become less frequent in iconography. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries use them again, but copied more closely from life, usually of small size, and without any intention of symbolism. One finds now rats, snakes, rabbits, snails, lizards, etc.
NORTHCOTE AND BROWNLOW, Roma Sotterranea (London, 1870); LÜBKE, History of Sculpture (London, 1872); BARBET DE JOUY, Les mosaiques chrétiennes (Paris, 1863); BOND, Gothic Architecture in England (London, 1906); VIOLLET-LE-DUC, Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XI au XVI siècle (Paris, 1858); DE BAUDOT, La sculpture française au moyen âge et la renaissance (Paris, 1885).