Animals in Christian art: New terrain?

Dr. Susan Power BrattonChair of Environmental Science Baylor University We think of Christian art as dominated by people – Jesus … Continued

Dr. Susan Power Bratton
Chair of Environmental Science
Baylor University

We think of Christian art as dominated by people – Jesus and his disciples, the Virgin and child and the great saints. But while animals play different roles in the teachings, rituals and cosmology of the diverse range of world religions, our fellow creatures are major figures in the aesthetic expression of the text-oriented religions, as well as in realm of orally transmitted myths and hunter-gathers. The American Academy of Religion now offers sessions on animals and religion at its annual meeting, and recent books have explored animals in the art of international religions such as Islam.

Going back to Christian origins, animals appear in the paintings and carvings associated with Christian burials in the Roman catacombs. Cheerful song birds symbolize the departed souls. Roman art depicts animals of all sorts – sea creatures, large predators like tigers, and even pet dogs. Christian art draws from the same repertoire while selecting some themes over others. Depictions of hunting and animal death are not absent from the earliest Christian art, but they are less common than in art associated with Roman military burials or the cult of Dionysus. Burials with Christian iconography present are more likely to be graced by pastoral scenes, such as sheep drinking from eternally flowing streams. Christian art through the fifth century is “de-militarized.” It, on average, avoids force of arms and glorifying a life fulfilled wearing a helmet, riding a war horse, and slaying lions.

From the mosaics at Ravenna to the stained glass of medieval cathedrals, Christian art is a zoo. River otters, after all, play chess on a column at Naumburg Cathedral in Germany. The ascendancy of a Christian aristocracy infused weapons and hunting back into commissions for frescoes and capitals by the early Middle Ages. The first ascetics, meanwhile, treated these passions as worldly and proved their holiness by caring for injured animals and inviting them into their desert or forest hermitages. For a Celtic or a desert monk to receive the trust and companionship of animals, wild and domestic, was a sign of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, as predicted by the prophet Isaiah. In the confines of the monastery, the lion or wolf could lie down with the lamb – and the monk. Themes such as ravens feeding Elijah or St. Antony, St. Jerome and his lion, or St. Giles protecting a hind from the huntsmen of the king teach ethics and may carry a thinly disguised political message about the abuse of secular power.

Christian protection of animals is a venerable topic, and long before St. Francis of Assisi preached to the birds and freed captive animals from cages, St. Kevin is reputed is to have patiently allowed a nesting black bird to raise a brood in his hand, upturned for prayer. Francis’s sermon to the birds and his admonition to the wolf of Gubbio declare the value before God of the human poor and disenfranchised. If the birds of the field might receive instruction, and the wolf can repent, how much more can be achieved for the landless and hungry sitting by the gates of the early modern city. Painters such as Giotto and Duccio counted these subjects among their greatest works.

Today’s revival of interest in religion, art and animals is sprouting from multiple roots. My own fascination originates from study of environmental values, including species conservation, in Christian art and literature. Many of the leading contemporary spokespeople alternatively emphasize animal rights, or animal ethics. We are offering a freshman engaged-learning group on Animals and Human Society here at Baylor University this fall, and the faculty mentors include a conservation biologist who studies village protection of sacred monkeys in Nigeria, a pianist responding to music produced by animals, and a wildlife ecologist active in horse rescue and rehabilitation of abused animals. One Baylor student artist, who recently exhibited a painting protesting the impact of poaching on elephants, is demonstrating an ancient ethic exploring new and very daunting terrain.

Dr. Susan Power Bratton is Chair of Environmental Science at Baylor University and author of two books on related topics, “Environmental Values in Christian Art” (State University of New York Press, 2008), and “Christianity, Wilderness and Wildlife” (University of Scranton Press, 2009).

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