Animal ambiguity

Nature and animals have played a significant role in each of the time periods we have studies so far. Animals fill the caves of Lascaux, the megaliths of Morbihan are incorporated in the pre-existing natural features, Lattes is dependent on the sea and uses shells for décor. The presence and incorporation of animals and nature in the art and decoration seems to be a common thread throughout French Art.

This thread does not cease when art and the church are wed. In fact, Christianity is a religion filled with animals in its Scriptures alone – they are made specifically by God, Adam names them, a snake tempts Adam and Eve, pairs of animals are gathered by Noah into the ark, etc.

In l’art roman – the “vernacular” art” at Poitou-Charentes, the animals of Christendom and meet the animals of other traditions. There is the coiled snake of the Fall; hunting scenes of horses, dogs, hawks, deer, boars, and hares on graves – relics of Meleager’s bore hunt from ancient Greek myth; a wide-spread image of birds drinking from a chalice; the lion, bull, and eagle representing the gospels of Mark, Luke and John; and all sorts of beasts taken to represent the forces of evil – griffins, beetles, chimeras, basilisks, harpies, and sirens. But there is a sort of blurred multiplicity to all this.

Take the lion for example. The lion can perhaps be the symbol of St. Mark. It can also be Christ. But it can also be Satan – the prowling lion. Or perhaps any given lion may be meant to point to the lions of Daniel. Or the Nemean lion. Or Leo of the zodiac. The convergence of these meanings raises a challenge: should a carving or picture that may be read multiple ways be read in multiple ways? Can the lion be all these at once? (I’m a bit too cautious to comfortably say “Yes”). The ambiguity of each animal opens such art in churches to interpretive heresy or subversive (or perhaps even blatant) cultish or pagan mysticicsm. The continuing theme of animals may be a testament to a common thread of fascination, but when integrated with religion it becomes a complicated one.

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