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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs
Vol. 32, No. 181 (Apr. 1918), pp156‑160.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p156 Symbolic Animals of Perugia and Spoleto
by Milton Garver*


Black-and‑white images are from the original article, and in the public domain;
any color photos are mine © William P. Thayer.


How many, among the numerous travellers in Europe, notice the large part that animals play in the decoration of the mediaeval churches? And when it is noticed that, apart from the fantastic gargoyles of the Gothic churches, such decoration is used, it is rarely observed that many of such animals had, in their origin, a symbolic meaning and not merely so much decorative p157ornament. To show the twofold nature of this decoration and to describe the façades of two Umbrian churches is the object of this paper.1

To understand the symbolism of decoration in Christian art we must go back to the very beginning of this art, or rather to the oldest remains we have left, the frescoes in the Catacombs. That the symbolism used in the Catacombs was current throughout the Church we learn from literary sources and we may be safe in assuming that the art of the Catacombs was the art of the Church. Much of the earliest art was derived directly from Roman pagan decorations and was used merely for a decorative purpose and, as the art of the Catacombs had mainly a commemorative basis, such pagan subjects as Orpheus, the peacock, and the phoenix, already used in classic art, as sepulchral symbols, were adopted by the Christians. Other subjects also became popular as it was possible to attach to them a Christian symbolism, and Christian art, in becoming symbolical, was simply a reflection of Christian faith and Christian teaching.

In the mosaics of S. Costanza in Rome we see birds, fishes and beasts used in a purely decorative way with no symbolism attached, but early in the frescoes of the Catacombs we find the dove, representing the Holy Spirit; the peacock, of which the flesh was thought to be incorruptible, and which thus became a symbol of immortality; the fish, the mystic symbol of Christ; the stag drinking from a stream, the Fountain of life; and birds, fruits and flowers representing Paradise. Some of these symbols, such as the fish, disappeared altogether when the need of secrecy was no longer felt by the Christians, but others remained, such as birds and vines, and in particular certain decorative forms. One of the most common of these was the arrangement of two animals or birds facing each other on either side of a vase, and drinking from it, or often two birds pecking at a fruit. The vessel has usually been interpreted as the Eucharist and there is especial significance in placing on either side of it the immortal peacock, or the sheep to illustrate the command, "Feed my sheep", or John x.9, "I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture". The dove, a symbol of the soul, is also used thus, as well as other animals and birds, and later we find them facing not only a vessel but sometimes the cross. This arrangement however was not original with the Christians, for animals confronted have been used from the time of the famous lion gate at Mycenae and in Assyrian architecture, and survive to‑day in many coats of arms as the lion and unicorn of Great Britain.

We now come to the first of the two façades which I wish to describe, that of S. Costanzo in Perugia, the church of the second Bishop of Perugia, martyred in the 2nd century [Plate a]. The present church dates from the 12th and 13th centuries and is noteworthy as the only example of Romanesque architecture in the city. On the pediment at the top of the building is the figure of Our Lord surrounded by an aureole, from the foot of which spring branches of the vine. This motif, we have seen, dates from the earliest Catacomb frescoes, and even from the pagan frescoes and mosaics, and was used as a symbol of the church, the vine often springing from a vessel which symbolises the Eucharist: "I am the vine, ye are the branches". Below this figure is a round window, in the centre of which is the Lamb representing Christ and around the window are the symbols of the four Evangelists, the Eagle (John), Angel (Matthew), Ox (Luke), and Lion (Mark). Lower down, on either side of the porch, are four panels with the Cross as the central theme, on either side of which are lions, griffins, and doves grouped as they are frequently found in the decoration of the Catacombs. These need not have had any especial symbolism to the designer, being merely a reproduction of a long consecrated form; but with the change from the usual vessel between the animals to the Cross he may have intended to represent the act of adoration or the protection afforded by the Cross to the meek as well as to the strong. The introduction of the griffin,2 which is not found in earlier Christian decoration, merely reflects the influence of the builders of Lombardy, where some of the Romanesque churches run wild with all manner of animals; many of them mere grotesques with no especial significance.


[image ALT: Two photographs. The one on the left is of a three-story pedimented stone building with only a rather small central door and a large circular window above it. The pediment is carved with vines, and in the center, a seated figure of Christ. The photo on the right is a detail of the other, showing the door: rectangular with elaborately carved jambs and a semicircular arch above it, also carved. It is the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Perugia, explicated in the text on this webpage.]
(A) West front of the church of S. Costanzo, Perugia

Around the doorway the sculptures represent somewhat the same ideas as those expressed above. On the lintel again Christ is seated in a halo surrounded by the four symbols of the Evangelists, each with an open book. On the jambs is a running scroll with animals among the leaves, a pattern often found about mediaeval church doors, which strongly recalls the mosaics of S. Costanza in Rome and frescoes in the Catacombs, where birds and animals amid trees and flowers symbolised Paradise. In the uppermost circle on the left are two birds, in the position very common in the Catacombs, drinking from a vase which here strongly suggests the chalice of the Church, while p158below these there is a single bird and still lower others feeding on fruit and the vine. It is interesting to compare here a sentence from the "Confessions" of S. Augustine, IX.3:—

Now lays he not his ear to his mouth, but his spiritual mouth unto Thy fountain, and drinketh as much as he can receive, wisdom in proportion to his thirst, endlessly happy.

ΠΙΕ ΕΝ ΘΕΩ, drink in God, is a part of some of the epitaphs found in the Catacombs. On this same jamb, at the bottom, are curious animals tearing one another, and J. W. and A. M. Cruickshank in their "Umbrian Towns" see in this, man in his unregenerate state, a prey to evil passions, in contrast with the birds above dwelling in peace among the branches, significant of the joys of those who live in harmony with the divine ruling. This may have been in the sculptor's mind, but its seems to me3 that the upper part is merely a reminiscence of the earlier symbolism and conventional ornament, while the animals in the lower part show again the Lombardic influence of grotesques and strange combinations and curious inventions of imaginary animals. On the right jamb is a running design4 of leaves with a small seated human figure, a bird pecking, a lion-like animal and a griffin. The joining of the stones about the doorway is very uneven and the irregularities so apparent that the one may easily believe that all these stones were not originally part of the doorway as first built. However the unity of the symbolism is not destroyed by this, and as we have seen descends from the early Church.

However, when we turn to the interesting façade of S. Pietro in Spoleto there is found quite a new element in its decorative sculpture. This church was the cathedral until 1067, and was restored after its destruction in 1329; the reliefs are probably of the 12th century [Plate, b]. The façade is divided into three horizontal bands, in the topmost of which are two panels with two calves standing sideways and possibly symbolical of sacrifice. Above these are two angels swinging censers. In the middle band is a round window with the symbols of the four Evangelists grouped around it, as was noticed in Perugia. But when we reach the third and lowest section of the façade we find most beautiful and interesting work evidently belonging to two periods, the carving about the door being most delicate and with a Byzantine feeling, while the rest is much plainer and less carefully executed.


[image ALT: A wide stone wall very busily decorated with carvings of people and animals. It is the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, described in great detail in the text on this webpage.]
(B) West front of the church of S. Pietro, Spoleto
(and a much more recent photo:)

[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular panel of high-relief carving, depicting on the left a lion with both feet caught in the cleft of a log, and on the right a man standing over the log and holding in his hands an axe. It is a relief on the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, explicated in the text on this webpage.]

The jambs and lintel of the door have the usual running scroll of foliage formerly symbolical of Paradise, but this time without any birds pecking at the fruit. On either side of this scroll are two strips of seven panels with arcades of delicately carved colonnettes, the flat spaces between which on one side are filled in with decorative rosettes, while on the other side some are left blank or have conventionalised designs of plants, and two are occupied with an eagle and a rampant lion.


[image ALT: A carved stone arcade of colonnettes, the flat spaces between which are filled in with decorative rosettes. It is a relief on the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, explicated in the text on this webpage.]

Above the colonnettes on either side is a relief of a peacock, earlier symbolical of immortality, pecking at a bunch of grapes.


[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular panel of high-relief carving, depicting a peacock pecking at a cluster of grapes. It is a relief on the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, explicated in the text on this webpage.]

At the bottom is a scene of a man driving a yoke of oxen, while a dog jumps barking before them. If the artist had any symbolism in mind here, it may have been to portray the results of the fall of our first parents. "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground" (Gen. 3, 19).


[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular panel of high-relief carving, depicting a man driving a yoke of oxen: in front of them, a dog jumps. It is a relief on the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, explicated in the text on this webpage.]

Thus far the trend of the symbolism resembles that of the doorway in Perugia and is all related to that descended from the Catacombs. But we must keep clearly in mind that, while it is so related, most of the ornament at Perugia, and thus far on the doorway at Spoleto, has become by this time merely decorative and must not be confused with the ornament which I am about to describe. The origin of this latter was much nearer to the builders, showing a new source of inspiration and containing a directness of allusion which by this time had been lost in the conventionalised forms already noted. Between the second and third panels of colonnettes is introduced a scene which differs from those already mentioned, and marks the transition to the remainder of the doorway. This is a stag with a serpent in its mouth.


[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular panel of high-relief carving, depicting a stag with a serpent in its mouth. It is a relief on the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, explicated in the text on this webpage.]

To be sure, the stag is found in the catacomb frescoes, but always, as far as I know, drinking at a stream, "as the hart panteth after the water brooks" (Ps. 42, 1), while here we find a new source of inspiration, namely, the "Bestiary". In the Greek and Latin "Physiologus" and the Romance bestiaries the stag is the enemy of the snake or dragon, and, after eating him, runs to a fountain and drinks, thus making himself young and shedding his antlers. In the words of the bestiary, so must we have recourse to the fountain of life — that is, Christ — and so regenerate ourselves. Thus we have, on both jambs of the door, scenes representing sin, the yoked oxen; redemption, the stag; and immortality, the incorruptible peacock.

On either side of these panels are two series of five scenes each, of which the topmost two do not concern us especially. On the right is portrayed the washing of Peter's feet by Christ, and the calling of Peter and Andrew, who are in a boat with Christ beckoning to them from the shore. On the left the two panels show the death of the righteous man and the sinner. However, the three p159lower scenes on each side again make use of the bestiary or fable material, as we found above in the case of the stag. The first one on the left shows a lion with both feet caught in the cleft of a log with a man standing over the log and holding in his hands an axe.


[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular panel of high-relief carving, depicting on the left a lion with both feet caught in the cleft of a log, and on the right a man standing over the log and holding in his hands an axe. It is a relief on the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, explicated in the text on this webpage.]

This I take to be a variant of the ungrateful animal group of stories. An Italian fable in terza rima of the 15th century is the oldest written version now known that has the lion as the principal character.5 In this fable the lion, while playing with a wedge in a log, accidentally gets his paw caught. A man, happening to pass, helps the lion to release himself, whereupon the lion wishes to eat him. The man objects to this, and three animals are called upon to decide the question. A dog and a horse decide against the man, but a fox wishes to see the lion in his original predicament before deciding. When his paw is again fastened in the tree, the fox tells him that he can stay there as a reward for his action to the man who befriended him. Our panel, however, follows more closely, I think, a fable6 given in a Latin manuscript dated 1322. A lion meets an ass and a horse, who say that they have been maltreated by their master, the man. The lion finds the man cutting logs and asks him his name, to which the man replies "mulier vocas". The lion wishes to know where is this beast called "homo", and the man says that he will bring him if the lion helps him with the logs. While doing so the man pulls out a wedge and the lion's paw is caught. The man's wife then pours boiling water over the lion and he escapes, leaving his paws in the log. He later returns with a number of lions, and the man, in fright, climbs a tree and drives them away by shouting "aquam calidam". I take this to be the story illustrated, because the man is represented holding an axe as though he had just been working on the log, while in the Italian version he is just a chance passer‑by.7 The date of the Latin story also more nearly corresponds to that of the church, which is either late 12th or early 13th century. This type of tale is used possibly to show the superiority of man over the demon, for while the lion in the Bible and the bestiaries is the king of beasts and is most noble, still he is also used as a symbol of the Prince of Darkness: "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour", 1 Peter, v, 8; "He (the wicked) lieth in wait secretly as a lion in his den", Ps. x, 9.

The two lower panels are more closely related to the bestiary. The first of these shows a man on his knees in an attitude of supplication before a lion; the second, a man lying on the ground with a lion gnawing at his head. These qualities of the lion are found in various writers from Pliny and Solinus down to the bestiaries of Richard de Fournival and the Italian versions.8 The Italian manuscript, Paris, says that when the lion has eaten and someone passes before him and does not look him in the face, he lets him go on and does him no harm; but if the man looks at him, he falls on the man and does him all the harm he can. And in addition, if the lion is in a wood and a man passes before him and sees him, if he bows humbly to him, the lion will do him no harm at all. So, says the Italian text, if we put our understanding in worldly things, we will have tribulations and adversity, while if we ask mercy and pity of God he will pardon our sins, as does the lion to the humble men.


[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular panel of high-relief carving, depicting a man on his knees in an attitude of proskynesis or supplication before a lion. It is a relief on the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, explicated in the text on this webpage.]


[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular panel of high-relief carving, depicting a man lying on the ground with a lion gnawing at his head. It is a relief on the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, explicated in the text on this webpage.]

On the other side of the door comes first the hungry fox lying on his back counterfeiting death, while two unsuspecting birds are beginning to peck at him. The trick of the fox who, when hungry, thus provides himself with food, is found in all the bestiaries, where the fox typifies the Devil who deceives the human race, entangling it in sin and finally dragging it down to hell. It is also a symbol of the deceitful man of the world and the trickery of the fox is too well known from the animal fables to need further comment.


[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular panel of high-relief carving, depicting a fox lying on his back, possibly dead, while two birds, one on either side of him, are beginning to peck at him. It is a relief on the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, explicated in the text on this webpage.]

The next scene well illustrates the fable of Marie de France,9 where the wolf tries to learn his letters, but can say only three or four when his mind reverts to sheep as his nature gets the upper hand of him. In this panel is seen the wolf wearing a scholar's hood and holding an open book in his paws. But his head is not turned toward the book; instead he is looking back at a ram which, evidently aware of his danger, seems to be trying to escape as fast as he can. That this panel portrays this particular story is made clearer by a relief in a passage connecting the choir and south transept in Freiburg cathedral in Germany and dating from the first half of the 12th century. Here the wolf is not only shown with his book and looking over his shoulder at a lamb, but also the monk teacher seated on a stool is portrayed, together with the three letters A, B, p160C, which the wolf has learned, placed above the picture.10 In connection with this second group is shown where the wolf has the lamb in his paws and is being chastised by the monk with his rod.


[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular panel of high-relief carving, depicting a running wolf on the left, holding a book in his front paws toward the edge of the panel, yet looking back to a ram, who is running away from him toward the right side of the panel. It is a relief on the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, explicated in the text on this webpage.]

For the remaining panel I have found no satisfactory explanation. Here is shown a lion with one of his paws on the tail of a griffin who has his head turned back with a resentful expression on his face and his long tail wrapped about the lion's body.


[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular panel of high-relief carving, depicting on the right a lion with one of his paws on the tail of a griffin, running away from him on the left, with his head turned back with a resentful expression on his face and his long tail wrapped about the lion's body. It is a relief on the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, explicated in the text on this webpage.]

Judging from the five other scenes which are all taken from the bestiary or fables, one would expect this picture to have a similar source, but such I have so far been unable to find.11 On either side of the lunettes over the side doors and above the central door are decorative figures of birds, and very battered lions flank each doorway as is so common at the entrances to Italian churches.


[image ALT: A slight oblique but basicaly endwise view of a wide stepped entrance to a tall building, of which only the lower bit can be seen. On the left, at the foot of the two steps, two pots of marigolds and begonias, or similar plants. On the top step, a series of stylized stone lions, very old and rather damaged. It is the front steps of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto.]

The last bit of decoration is a small plaque above the left door which represents a winged figure, probably S. Michael, thrusting a long lance through a dragon.


[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular panel of high-relief carving, depicting on the right a winged angel standing with a long lance which he thrusts into the mouth of a dragon whose long curvy tail ties to wrap around the angel. It is a relief of the archangel Michael on the façade of the church of S. Pietro in Spoleto, explicated in the text on this webpage (no 'probably' about it').]

While on many churches one find animals in conventional decorative arrangement originating in the symbolism which descends from the Catacombs, as well as stray bits of natural history taken from the bestiary or fables, I know of no church which presents such a complete system of allusive ornament as is found on S. Pietro of Spoleto. It makes one almost believe that the sculptor was illustrating some bestiary manuscript which he had recently read, as one frequently finds collections of fables appended to the usual bestiary chapters. S. Pietro is pre-eminent among churches using animals as decoration in that the stories can be traced to definite literary sources and their symbolism can still be read by those acquainted with mediaeval tales, whereas in most other cases the animals have degenerated into mere conventionalised grotesques or owe their origin to the inspiration of the Catacomb frescoes and the early Church, as illustrated by S. Costanzo at Perugia.


The Author's Notes:

* [Professor Garver being now a Lieutenant in the United States Army has not been able to pass the proofs of this article, but as it has been long withheld from publication by extreme pressure on our space, it seemed preferable to print it without the author's final corrections. — Ed.]

1 These two churches S. Costanzo in Perugia and S. Pietro in Spoleto, have not been described in detail so far as I have been able to discover. Mâle in his Religious Art in France makes no mention of them. Von der Gabelentz in Die Kirchliche Kunst im Mittelalter mentions various groups from S. Pietro, in his lists of similar sculptures, without describing them. A. Venturi, Storia dell' Arte Italiana, III, 900‑903 similarly cites groups from S. Pietro.

2 However, the griffin and lion may be connected with the griffin on the Palazzo Pubblico and the griffin and the lion on the public fountain at Perugia, where they are the ensigns of the town and the Guelphs respectively. In the mediaeval art of Umbria various animals are used with a political significance, and the same idea is found in Dante.

3 Cf. Arthur Kingsley Porter, Lombard Architecture, New Haven, 1917: vol. I, p216. Mr. Porter thinks that much nonsense has been written on the interpretation of what is plainly nothing more than grotesque ornament, and quotes the celebrated passage from S. Bernard on the subject: S. Bernard, Apologia ad Guillelmum, XII, 29, ed. Migne, Pat. Lat. CLXXXII, 915.

4 On the jambs of the Duomo at Spello is found the vine with birds in the branches, on the lintel are animals pursuing one another, somewhat like the sculptures on S. Michele in Pavia and the hunting scenes on the church of S. Nicola at Bari and the cathedral at Angoulême.

5 Kenneth McKenzie, An Italian Fable, Its Sources and History, Modern Philology, I, 497, 1904. McKenzie thinks that there is no difficulty in believing that the lion was already present in oral versions in India and mentions ungrateful animal stories in the Disciplina Clericalis, 12th century, the Extravagantes and the Panchatantra. The version with the lion may have come to Italy and been current in popular tradition long before it was written down in the form we now know it.

6 McKenzie, op. cit., p520.

7 This idea of an animal caught in a log is widely spread (cf. McKenzie, op. cit.). It is interesting to note that this story is found as late as Uncle Remus. In Nights with Uncle Remus, chapter 7, Mr. Lion hunts for Mr. Man, the lion is caught in precisely the same way as in the Latin version: in another story of Uncle Remus, Brother Wolf gets in a warm place, where Brer Rabbit's wife pours boiling water on the wolf, is seen the aquam calidam of the Latin tale.

8 M. S. Garver, K. McKenzie, Il Bestiario toscano secondo la lezione dei codici di Parigi e di Roma, Studj romanzi, VIII, Roma 1912.

9 Ed. Karl Warnke, Halle, 1898, p271, No. 81.

10 For other representations of this same subject at Parma, Ferrara and Verona, cf. Porter, op. cit., I, 339.

11 Might this have a political significance, as was suggested for the griffin at Perugia?


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Page updated: 26 Sep 11