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The Hidden Symbolic Meaning of Animals in Western Painting

The iconographical interpretation of Animals in  Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance Painting

A leering monkey, a playful finch, a scheming snake, a clever crow, a robin, an osprey—all are charmingly decorative to the average viewer. For painters of the Gothic, Early Renaissance and High Renaissance eras, symbols were part of a rich visual language. In a culture of restricted literacy symbolic imagery was vital in keeping sinners on the path to heaven.  Animal iconography has been around since antiquity. In Medieval times people believed that animals had the ability to recognize the quality of piety or evil in humans and the creatures reacted accordingly.  If a sparrow landed upon someone's head or shoulder the person was believed to be especially virtuous. However if a raven nested on a villagers roof his home was often put to the torch as this was sign of a sinful dwelling.  Dogs were thought to posses  power  to look into a persons soul and were used to determine if a person was a heretic or a witch. The canines were often included in courtroom proceedings and if a dog look intently or growled at the accused, the person was judged guilty of witchcraft and burned alive in the village square.

Wolf - symbolizes compassion and mercy. The wolf was used as the emblem for many early Saints including  St. Francis of Assisi who is often shown with a wolf .

Ermine -  symbolizes truth, fidelity, mischief making.  Often associated with the aristocracy or royalty. 

White Horse - a symbol of victory, conquest, goodness  and invincibility. "And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. " -- Revelation 19:11

The ape symbolizes a lustful soul filled with sinful thoughts.

Cat -  symbolizes shrewdness, treachery, trickery and watchfulness. Often associated with Satan, witchcraft or sorcery.

Winged ox -  represents Luke the Evangelist, one of the four evangelist. 

Ox -  symbolizes strength, power, humility "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" Matt. 11:28

The Vulture  epitomized greed, corruption  and ruthless power.

The singing robin  symbolizes deliverance from evil and God's holy mercy. A caged robin signifies  removal from Gods holy grace.

Otters emblem of Saint Cuthbert, an Anglo-Saxon monk and hermit. He was a great animal lover who enacted the first laws to protect wildlife. Otters became his emblem after they  rescued him from the drowning.

The Eagle is a symbol of Christ and of regeneration by baptism and also represents John the Evangelist, one of the four Evangelist.   The eagle also the symbolizes  the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Winged Lion -  represents Mark the Evangelist, one of the four evangelist. 

lion - a symbol of power, majesty, wisdom, tyranny,  viciousness, dignity, and leadership. The lion represents both Jesus Christ as well as Satan, a wise king or a tyrant.

Camel emblem of Egyptian Saint Mennas.  He was martyred by being thrown into a fire pit when he openly declared his Christian faith.

lamb - symbolizes  humility, peace, and innocence.  The lamb represents Christ as the Lamb, and also Christians as the flock.

Dolphin -  sign of the resurrection and  symbolizes Christ  guiding Christians to heaven.

Goat - symbol of Satan. Satan is often depicted as a horned and hoofed goat-like creature.

Unicorn, a symbol of purity, harmony, the arrival of Spring. Since the Middle Ages the unicorn was a symbol of chastity and innocence, it was believed that a unicorn could only be tamed by a virgin's gentle stroke.

Pig - symbolizes  material desires, excess and self-indulgence.  The pig is also the emblem of  Saint Antony of Egypt

Dog - a symbol of loyalty, openness, dependability and fidelity

Cow emblem of St Perpetua who was gored  to death by an enraged cow in the a 3rd-century when she was thrown in the arena of Carthage.

Bull emblem of Thomas Aquinas

Snake - symbolizes Satan; the presence of evil, fall of man, devil

A snake brazenly slithering across the middle of a thoroughfare or road - symbolizing the False Prophet leading the way to hell.

A devious serpent peeking out of a basket, urn or pot - a spiritual reminder of Satan's presence in unusual places.

Bear emblem of St. Seraphim of Sarov. During his life as reclusive monk  stayed in the forest and fed and befriended many animals including a bear.

Swan symbolizes purity and is also the emblem of Saint Hugh of Lincoln. he was a great animal lover and as well as caretaker to lepers. A swan he befriended fowled him around and kept watch of him as he slept.




The Meaning of Sacred Symbols in Paintings. Most prominently featured  symbols and their meaning:

The  Serpent

Good Shepherd

Adam and Eve




Virgin Mary


The Anchor

The Apostles



The Cross

Architectural Elements



The Saints









Household Object



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Richard Muther, The History of Painting, Henry and Co., London, 1896



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