Party. Why animal sculptures in churches?

Representation of animals in churches: modillion of the Notre Dame de Velles chapel in Vers in the Lot. (© A. Decup)

In it Lots of churches but also everywhere else in France, what visitor in a Romanesque building has not been confused to see a wolf or an owl staring at the believers in a 13th-century church?

Almost everywhere, inside and out, there is depictions of animals in churches. Engraved in the stones are most of the sculptures, well highlighted, very visible on the eardrums or capitals. For the path that is followed in a building must become an initiation journey, so that from capital to capital, from bend to pillar, a dialogue is established between the one who walks and the stones that lead him.

Other sculptures hide in more discreet places. Like the wooden stalls where the animals hide under the seats, the modillions, these sculptural elements that support the cornices or even between two arches.

Why carve animals in churches?

Real or imaginary animals have always fascinated and inspired man. Like men, they too have the right to land, tradition and history. Why should they not have the right to Christianity? They are found on tapestries, in manuscripts, and in places of worship. Because they are related to an episode from the Bible or refer to the lives of saints.

It should be remembered that three of the four evangelists are symbolized by animals: the eagle for John, the bull for Luke, and the lion for Mark.

Medieval sculptors (and painters) liked to represent nature, fauna and flora to praise the divine creation: if the animals celebrate the glory of God, they also educate man and evangelize it, the animal being a role model to follow or not to follow. In the church, a place accessible to all, the message is understandable to all, scholars as well as illiterates.

Representations of animals in churches: a fox and its prey at the church of Lamothe-Fénelon in Lot.
Representations of animals in churches: a fox and its prey at the church of Lamothe-Fénelon in Lot. (© A. Decup)

Animal symbolism in Romanesque churches

The sculptures in our churches are not just works of art. They carry letters that the men of the day could understand because most of them could not read.

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Although we have lost some of their significance, about 800 symbols engraved in medieval stone delivered important shipments. Plants and animals are among them.

This large picture book, which is our heritage, allows an approach to an art that, despite the centuries, has remained surprisingly alive.

Among the real animals represented, let’s take a few:

– The owl symbolizes nocturnal knowledge and consciousness. It is a symbol of vigilance and hope that accompanies us in “our darkness”. This very common bird in medieval statues seems to be watching over the believers.

– Often at the foot of the pillars the frog shows the active participation of the primitive life. Symbol of aquatic life and animal transformation, this batrachian illustrates the metamorphoses for which the lunar principle is responsible.

Cunning, always looking, the fox is in this historical period, possessing knowledge and full of wisdom. Popularized in the 12th century by “Le Roman de Renart”, it is from this collection that certain scenes with capitals come, which are sometimes considered obscure to our understanding.

– As an illustration of a primitive and demonic form, the boar is an element of the “Round Table”. Despite Christianity, the Druid religious significance has survived. He remained a mythical creature attached to the forest and to the lost magicians.

– The horse represents the instincts and mastery of those who know how to dominate their impulsivity and subdue their passions. Sublimated, he leads his rider into the dwelling of the gods. Symbol of power and might, the best conquest of man takes place both in the night and the light, in the beginning and in the end.

– Do not forget the rooster on the towers: the bird, whose song signals the transition from darkness to light, is associated with the denial of Saint Peter. It is, above all, a sun animal that reminds us that Christ will reappear as the sun at the time of the final judgment.

The mysterious animals

To the humans of the time, some of these animals were very real like the unicorn or the half-rooster the half-reptile basilisk. Chimeras and hybrid beings, mixtures of several animals or mixtures of humans and animals are perceived as poorly finished humans, symbolizing cargo and evil.

Animal symbolism reflects the idea it has about itself

Since ancient societies, the wonderful has always been associated with nature. Animals belong to this wild universe, which escapes human reason and which is still ruled by mysterious forces.

Since the parietal art of the Upper Paleolithic, man has always needed through the beast “to expel his fears, to transfer his qualities and his faults, his strengths and his shortcomings, his will to also dominate to creatures. The beast beyond its nourishing role is has thus become a great allegorical mirror of the human race. ”We can thus say that” animal symbolism does not reflect animals, but the idea man has about them and perhaps the idea he has about himself “.

Animals know how to say so many things to each of us, so many things about ourselves and about ourselves.

The message about the stones, the places of energy

Never has an art illustrated these similarities between man and animal as much as Romanesque art. It is precisely this pedagogy that sculptors have taken up, using not only the biblical message of creation, but also the entire contemporary contribution that it has modeled to give us its spiritual message.

The Church is par excellence the link between the visible world and the invisible world. It is more than a work of art, it is a machine to generate, to heal, which works not only on the physical plane, but also on the plane of knowledge, from the vital to the spiritual. It is also a place of prayer.

And the strength of the builder monks is to have known to unite science and the sacred. They “knew how to give access to those who were free in the heart to the wonderful fire of the divine forces”.


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