The bestiary in the Romanesque
Animals are one of the most significant elements of medieval iconography and what they symbolised in the period, one of the least known nowadays. From the 12th century onwards, medieval thinkers discovered nature as a way of achieving knowledge about all the truths and the animals became examples of human behaviour. Added to the relation between humans and animals was the symbolic dimension in which the latter were metaphors that explained religious truths.
From the 13th century onwards, the bestiary became popularised, even in courtesan ambits, and took on a more and more moralising tendency: they not only explained eternal truths, but also how the people should behave.
See the album of the museum devoted to the bestiary on Pinterest:
Even though it isn't one of the most representative animals in Romanesque plastic art, it is one of the most known in the middle ages, because it forms part of the large caravans of traders who made their most important commercial routes of Asia and Africa. These can be seen in the mural paintings of Sant Joan de Boí. As an exotic animal it is also represented in the dwellings of the nobility, it serves for the settings of the epic poems and was sometimes offered as an imperial gift.
It is considered to be a humble animal because when it is loaded it stoops down to the ground. For this reason, during the middle ages it appears as an attribute of obedience and a symbol of humility and submission. If you notice, in the camel of Boí, it has a cross painted on its body, a reference to Christ that is humbly submitted to the will of the Father.
The paintings in this room are a good example of medieval bestiary. You can see a large number of animals, some of them real, others unreal, the result of the imaginary culture of the time: the elephant, the apocalyptic beast with seven heads, the carcoliti, the viper, the cock, the panther, etc., as the representation also is of Noah's Ark in the paintings of Sixena, at the end of the tour around the room of Romanesque art.
The bestiaries define the dragon as the biggest snake and of all the living beings. In Romanesque times it is represented as an enormous and terrible snake: with an open mouth and prominent teeth, breathing fire, flaming eyes, horns, the clawed paws of a lion, wings, and a body closer to a bird than a reptile, covered in scales to protect it, and a long tail, where it had its strength.
This fantastic animal contains the four elements of nature: fire for the breath, air for the wings, water for the scales of the body and the earth for the shape of the snake.
The dragon watches over the treasures, over the passes and the sacred places, it sweeps the ground and is a rival of the hero, knight or saint. It is the chaos from which life is born and it must be killed for life to flow freely. There are two characters who have fought against the dragon. Saint Michael, who faced the demon, habitually represented as a dragon with many heads, as in Sant Joan de Boí, or only with one as in the paintings of Sant Miquel d’Engolasters. On the altar frontal of the Archangels, Saint Michael, with a shield and a spear, fights against one of five heads. The same scene can be seen on the staff of Mondoñedo. The second is Saint George, of whom there are no representations in the Romanesque art of the museum, but there are in the works of other periods.
On other occasions, the dragon bears a star inlaid in its tail, and attacks a sagittary or centaur, which defends itself by throwing arrows, as can be seen in the paintings of Sixena.
Even though we don't know if the Romanesque artists had ever seen an elephant, this animal is one of the most represented of the time. As an exotic beast, in the same way as the camel, it was also an object of gifts among the royalty and was represented in ways which were sometimes even funny. For example, the trunk of the elephant of the Baldaquí de Toses seemed more like a trumpet.
It symbolises purity and baptism, by being associated to the characteristics of its sexual life that medieval bestiary had made known.
Due to its strength and stamina it participated in the war machinery of the ancient armies. For this reason in the paintings of Sorpe, as well as the Baldaquí de Toses, it appears bearing a tower on its back. This image also symbolises the strength and purity that the Church needed to resist the temptations of the devil.
In Sorpe, part of a representation has also been conserved of a zodiac: a crab and a sagittary or centaur, and a pretty dove that symbolises the Holy Spirit.
This is a hybrid being included in the bestiaries of fantastic animals and one of the most represented in the Middle Ages. It is described as having the head of an eagle, and the body, paws and claws of a lion. It is a strong animal that with its claws can lift up an armed man in flight, and even a horse or an ox.
The griffin protects treasures, especially of gold and precious stones, among which the agate is the most prized by the animal, which is often kept in its nest. In this sense we can understand the representation of the griffin of San Pedro de Arlanza, situated originally on the two sides of one of the windows of the court rooms of the royal palace. In the paintings of Sixena, next to the sacrifice of Isaac, a griffin fights against a winged dragon, in the eternal battle between good and evil.
Furthermore, in its negative connotation it can also be symbolised as the devil which takes the soul of the sinners to hell.
The ancient religions considered it a sacred animal and associated it with the darkness and the underground world, from which it emerged galloping. It is a child of the night and of mystery, and carrier of life and death. On the one hand it was an animal considered pure and impure, funerary and linked to death; on the other hand, it augured happiness and could emerge from the darkness and fly up to the sky as a winged horse. The horse travelled between heaven and earth and situated itself between death and resurrection. It was also clairvoyant: it knew things from the other world, could see what man couldn't see, guiding him at night and warning him of obstacles.
It was presented as an animal of gods, the hero, the knight, with whom you joined to fight against the dragon. In the clash between good and evil, the horse is positively valued compared with the beast that should be killed. As an animal, we can see it in the in the altar frontal of Gia, mounted by Saint Martin, or in the profane scenes as in the capital where it is mounted by a bearded king and his wife.
But the most characteristic representation is in the Epiphany. Saint Matthew explains the journey of the three Magic Kings, on horseback, who went to worship Jesus. In the altar frontal of Mosoll, they appear in profile, almost the same but of different colours: one is black, the other is white with round spots, and the third is again black.
The lamb, the sheep that still is less than one year old, since ancient times it has been one of the favourite animals for sacrifices. That's why Christian tradition has related it with the sacrifice of Christ, as in the paintings of Santa Maria de Taüll or those of Sant Cristòfol de Toses. Since the beginnings of Christianity it has had a strong symbolic content: Christ is the lamb of God and the good shepherd who takes care of the flock. In Romanesque plastic art it can be seen on crosses, like that of Bagergue, or in the mural paintings.
One of the most impacting images is the lamb of the keystone of one of the apse arches of the church of Sant Climent de Taüll. This representation of the animal with seven eyes, which the book of seven seals bears corresponds to an image of the manifestation of God described in the Apocalypse. It is one of the most popular of Romanesque painting and responds to the consideration of Christ as a veritable Passover lamb sacrificed for the salvation of mankind.
The lion, the bull, the eagle and the angel: the Tetramorph
The word ‘tetramorph’ etymologically indicates a representation of four elements. In Christian tradition, the prophet Ezekiel describes four creatures with a human face and animal appearance. Already in the Middle Ages, the four evangelists were associated, represented around Christ. In the Romanesque art rooms, there are various notable examples, both in mural painting (the one of Sant Climent de Taüll), as well as in panel painting, such as the one of Baldaquí de Tost.
The lion represents Mark because his Evangelist starts speaking of Saint John the Baptist, who preaches in the wilderness. His voice is like that of the lion, a strong and noble animal, as Jesus would be.
The bull is Luke, because he starts talking of the sacrifice of Zachariah to God and the bull is the symbol of sacrifice, the desire for a spiritual life, which allows man to triumph beyond animal passions and to obtain peace.
The eagle symbolises John because it is an animal which is considered to be wise and clairvoyant, which when it flies it looks straight at the sun, and the evangelist of John is more abstract and theological than the others.
Finally, the angel is Matthew, because he is the only one who talks of the genealogy of Christ, the Son of the Father, and moreover represents divine love, sent by the angles (the messengers of Christ) to the humans.
The ox and the mule
The mule is a hybrid of horse and she-ass or donkey and mare. Pliny says that the animals that were born from two different species are a new species and don't procreate. The ox, a castrated bull, is a domestic animal linked to the tasks of the country and work. It represents a heavy force, slow and obstinate, but effective.
There is a Christian tradition in the 4th century that represents the ox and the mule, often of half a body, alongside Joseph and Mary in the birth of Jesus, as in the Altar Frontal of Avià. On the one hand, the mule symbolises the capacity of Mary to give birth being a virgin, and on the other hand, the ox, docile and meek, would represent Joseph, pious and submissive, who, without intervening in the conception of Christ, accepted God's plans.
Furthermore, as the mule is an animal opposed to the ox, it would represent the evil aspects in front of the beneficial ones, the forces of evil vanquished by the Redeemer. In the Rooms of the museum there are examples of these animals in the birth of Jesus, mainly in the panel painting on wood, such as the altar frontal of Cardet.
The pigeon is honest because it stays loyal to its partner even after death. It symbolises loyalty and marriage, and at the same time, as with all winged animals, spirituality, it represents the sublimation of instincts, elevation, transcendence and the release of the earth.
It is one of the most used symbols by the Church to represent the Holy Spirit (in the paintings of Sorpe and those of Estaon), Jesus Christ, the Church, the faithful and the soul of the innocent. It would also be one of the emblems of the Mother of God. As an image of purity, it appears is scenes such as that of the presentation of Jesus to the temple or the offering of Saint Joseph of four white doves to the temple that appears on the altar frontal of Mosoll.
The Eucharistic Pigeon that you can see on a liturgical base that served to keep the consecrated wafers and between each mass was hung above the altar with a system of chains. It is constructed with sheets of copper and the golden body is engraved with a theme which aims to reproduce the short feathers. The wings and the tail are enamelled in blue, green, red and yellow. The pigeon affirms itself in this way as a liturgical symbol representing Christ who is mysteriously reincarnated in the Eucharist.
On other occasions, as when it grows up it fights and expels the father from the nest so as to mate with the mother, it represents lust and for this reason in some medieval manuscripts it appears in the hand of a woman, who embodies lust.
In Christian iconography it is one of the most important and most complex symbolic animals. Genesis says that the snake is the most astute of the wild animals that God made and tempted Adam and Eve in the episode of the original sin. It then became the symbol of the demon, the enemy of God, and appears wrapped around the Tree of Life, in the form of an ascending spiral, that is interpreted as a rebellion against God. In the pillar of Camarasa and the paintings of Sixena you can see the representation of the original sin, with Adam and Eve on each side of the Tree of Life and the snake wound round the trunk. They said it fled from the naked man and only attacked if he was dressed. For this reason, while Adam went naked through Paradise the snake didn't dare attack him, because he was clean of sin, but when he was dressed of mortality and was covered with vices, it jumped on him.
Despite its harmful and negative symbolism (protagonist of the original sin, representation of the demon and figuration of hell and personification of evil in the Final Judgement), at times it makes reference to Christ and acquires a more positive sense.