Medieval Europe had an agricultural economy, and animals played a major role in everyday life, providing food, transportation, farm labour, clothing and raw materials for books and writing implements. Real and imaginary animals also carried a wide range of symbolic meanings and were depicted in sculptures, illustrations, decorations, jewellery and heraldry.
People of medieval Christendom saw animals as symbols of God's creation and divine plan. The lamb, for instance, was a Christian symbol of Jesus Christ's sacrifice for humanity. Animals also represented common cultural values such as devotion, valour and loyalty. Knights often had animals on their coats of arms. For example, the coat-of-arms of French knight Simon de Vrie depicts a Greyhound, a symbol of devotion. According to the J. Paul Getty Museum, this may have been a symbol of his devotion to the king.
Bestiaries were books containing depictions of both real and imaginary animals that served as natural history and moral instruction. The usually anonymous authors used the detailed descriptions of animals as the basis for a moral allegory. Each description was typically accompanied by lavish illustrations that helped the largely illiterate populace remember the stories. However, the illustrations weren't always realistic. Most European artists hadn't seen many of the animals and did the best they could following the descriptions. For example, drawings of whales looked like large fish and crocodiles looked like dogs. When illustrating imaginary beasts such as dragons, griffins and basilisks, the artists typically referred to earlier illustrations for guidance.
The dragon was a symbol of the Devil. According to the bestiaries, when a dragon took off, his wings stirred up the air and made it shine. They compared this to the Devil fooling people by making himself look like a beautiful angel of light. The crest on top of the dragon's head was compared with the Devil crowned with pride. Dragons supposedly fed on elephants, which they ambushed and killed with the coils of their tail. This was compared with the Devil lying in wait for Christians and suffocating them with sins.
Doves were seen as symbols for Christ, the Holy Spirit, the law and the prophets. Each colour of dove was given meaning. White doves represented John the Baptist. Red doves symbolised Christ redeeming man through blood. Speckled doves represented the 12 disciples. Gold doves represented the boys from the Book of Ezekiel who refused to worship the idol of the king. Doves the colour of the air represented the Prophet Elisha who was taken into the air. Ash coloured doves represented Jonah because he preached about hair shirts and ashes. Black doves represented obscure sermons. A colour called stephanite represented St. Stephen the first Christian martyr.
According to medieval bestiaries, lions had three main characteristics. They erased their tracks with their tails, slept with their eyes open and their cubs were born dead but came to life on the third day when their mother's breathed into their faces or their father roared over them. Each of these characteristics was representative of an aspect of Jesus Christ. The lion erasing its tracks with its tail was compared to Jesus hiding his divinity from everyone but his disciples. The lion sleeping with its eyes open symbolised Jesus after the crucifixion. He was physically dead but alive in spirit. The lion roaring over its dead cubs symbolised God resurrecting Jesus after three days in the tomb.
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