In numerous ancient cultures, animals have held symbolic significance and meaning in their culture, society, beliefs, and spirituality. Take for example the animal-headed gods and goddesses that were worshipped by the ancient Egyptians and the Mesopotamians. In Asian culture, dragons are revered as gods and snakes are seen as the symbol of cunningness.
Even in Christianity, animal symbolism has played a significant part. The dove, symbolises the Holy Spirit, is an excellent sample of prevalent animal imagery. Before its prevalence and acceptance, the fish became the symbol for Christ in the religion. Remnants of this animal symbolism can be found in the ancient Romanesque churches found in Perugia and Spoleto.
San Constanzo Church in Perugia
The church dates back all the way to the 12th or 13th century. The façade of the church illustrates some of the most significant and prominent animal symbolism in Christianity: The Four Evangelists.
- Among the four, St. Matthew is the only one represented by a divine man based from the gospel he wrote focusing on Christ’s incarnation and birth. The three others have animals to represent them.
- Mark is symbolised by the winged lion which may allude to the prophet’s “winged messages.” It may also be a reference to the prophet Isaiah’s writings on the voice in the desert which can be related to a lion’s roar.
- The winged ox symbolises St. Luke as he writes about the sacrificial oxen in the parable of The Prodigal Son.
- Lastly, the winged eagle is meant to allude to St. John whose gospels talk about the mysteries of God and the incarnation of Christ.
The façade of the Church also features the Cross with various animals such as doves, griffins, and lions around it. The Griffins may be attributed to the influence of the builders from Lombardy. The picture is interpreted as Christ being adored by both the meek, as symbolised by the doves, and the strong and powerful, as expressed by the lions and griffins.
San Pietro Church in Spoleto
The church of San Pietro in Spoleto was built and used as a Cathedral in 1067, and it was restored in 1329. The church’s façade has numerous portrayals of animal symbolism such as oxen, peacocks, dogs, snakes, and stags. Each of the animals, along with their positioning, hold various meanings and significance for Christianity. Found in symmetrical positions are two peacocks pecking on grapes. The peacocks were a symbol of immortality. At the bottom of the scene found in the church’s façade is a man driving a pair of oxen with a barking dog in front of them. The picture could be the artist’s reference to the fall of man as when he had been banished from Paradise he must toil for his livelihood.
Another picture in the facade is that of a stag with a serpent in its mouth. The stag has been previously painted in other artistic impressions in ancient churches where it is seen drinking from the waters of Paradise. The stag in the façade of San Pietro, similar to the drinking stags in the other artwork, represents Christ in his existence as the fountain of life and the saviour of humanity from sin, as represented by the snake in the stag’s mouth. All of these animal symbolism in San Pietro highlight the fundamental ideas of Christianity in the form of symbolic animals: the peacock as immortality, the snake as sin, the oxen as a sacrifice, and the stag as Christ the Redeemer.