Animals, Symbolism of
ANIMALS, SYMBOLISM OF
In Christian symbolism, animals as well as plants, monograms, and other objects have often been used as religious symbols. The early Church preferred to use the animals mentioned in Sacred Scripture. In the Bible as well as in the liturgy, so-called clean animals are clearly distinguished from those that are unclean. As regards the virtues, the lion symbolizes courage and the services of a powerful protector. The lamb represents Christ, and the meekness of the Christian. The bull represents strength; the dog, fidelity; the snake, caution and prudence; the
dove, the Holy Spirit; the swallow, innocence; the lark, the singing of the praises of God; the deer, the longing of the Christian for salvation; the peacock, immortality. Certain animals are regularly used to represent the various vices. The chameleon symbolizes hypocrisy; the hyena, impurity; the wolf, greed; the fox, cunning; the owl, darkness; the ass, self-will; the serpent, the devil. In early Christian literature animals are borrowed also from the ancient fables together with their connotative symbolism. For example, the pelican is used to represent redemption, and also Christ's giving of Himself in the Eucharist. The many-headed hydra is often used to represent heresy. The fish is one of the earliest and most important of Christian symbols. The five letters of the word for fish in Greek form an acrostic, signifying Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Savior (see ichthus). The fish is used also as a symbol of Baptism and of Christ in the Eucharist. The Church still encourages the use of animal symbols in her churches and schools as an easy means of symbolizing virtue and vice.
See Also: symbolism, early christian; bestiary; physiologus.
Bibliography: k. kÜnstle, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst (Freiburg 1926–28) 1:119–132. b. kÖtting, "Tier und Heiligtum," in Mullus: Festschrift Theodor Klauser, ed. a. stuiber and a. hermann (Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum suppl. 1; 1964) 209–214. l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien (Paris 1955–59) 1:76–132, bibliog. 138–140.
[t. j. allen]