In the Old Testament, when Job suffered at the hands of Satan, hereferred to the innate spiritual knowledge implanted in animals. He implored his friend Zophar to recognize their wisdom: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:7-10).
Christians integrated Job’s assertion into their religious convictions, believing the animals and birds of sacred art conveyed messages for them. These messages resided in metaphors, biblical stories, moral lessons, and Christian theology.
Even more, Christians believed God purposely created some of the earth’s creatures to represent his salvation story. For example, pelicans revived their dead offspring after three days, symbolizing Christ’s resurrection after three days, saving humanity from sin. Peridexion trees shielded doves from dragons, just as the Church sheltered Christians from Satan. Dogs remained loyal to their owners, just as husbands and wives practiced fidelity. In this sense, all creation reflected the Creator, if Christians paused and observed. Christian art encouraged them to appreciate and learn from God’s creatures.
In the second or third century, an illuminated manuscript began assisting with this didactic process. The allegorical Physiologus grew into a bestseller in Europe and Asia Minor, describing animals and assigning them spiritual meanings. Eventually this text expanded and combined with other works about animal lore, creating the bestiary of the Middle Ages.
However, in the bestiaries artists took liberties with animals they’d never encountered in life. At times illustrators drew the crocodile as a dog-beast or a whale as a scaled fish. The ostrich walked with hooves and a serpent sprouted feet or wings. Some illustrators lacked the skill to accurately portray a creature while others mastered true works of art.
Christians felt the earth’s creatures magnified God’s greatness. In design, they represented a creative, magnificent God. They also believed, along with the ancient psalmist, creatures praised God. The psalmist explained, “Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths . . . wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds” (Ps. 148:7, 10).
Overall, beasts, birds, reptiles, insects, and fish populated Christian art. Although these creatures proliferated in illuminated manuscripts, they also appeared in jewelry, paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and other art forms. These works honored God’s creatures, and his splendor in the earth, sky, and water.
To learn more about God’s creatures in Christian symbolism, read the book The Art of Faith by Judith Couchman. It’s available through Paraclete Press at www.paracletepress.com. Use the code Judith 25 for a 25 percent discount. Offer good through December 30, 2012.