Art History and Research
Together with the lion and the dog, the eagle is one of the three real animals most often depicted in gargoyles. We saw the symbolism of the lion and the dog in previous posts.
Today we’re going to talk about the eagle, the king of birds.
The eagle has had tremendous symbolic value since Antiquity, in central Asia and later in the eastern Mediterranean.
For the Hindus it was an emblem of Vishnu (one of the most important gods of Hinduism) and in the art of Chaldea (a region of Mesopotamia) it appears as a noble bird that accompanies the king, tames the lion and helps Ninus, the Chaldean Hercules, in his fight against monsters.
In Greece, Plutarch (1st-2nd century historian and philosopher) tells us that the eagle is minister of Zeus, while Pliny (1st century writer and naturalist) even sees it being protected by lightning. Lucian (2nd century writer) says that these birds can bear the brightness of the sun without lowering their eyes, which symbolically means that they can gaze upon the divine light.
The eagle is a Christological symbol which on ageing looks for a spring, then climbs up to the sun, burning its old plumage and the film covering its cloudy eyes; it then descends back down to the spring, submerging itself three times and recovering its youth. This is how Christians should renew their faith in the spring of living water, which is the Word of God. In Christianity, the eagle became both an image of Christ and of the faithful, and the fable in which it recovers its youth symbolises the resurrection of Christians as well as of God.
Plus, as we know, the eagle is the symbol of St. John the Evangelist and in a general sense it represents Evangelists’ inspiration. Because of this symbolic interpretation, the lectern from which the Gospels are read often takes the form of an eagle.
As for its negative meaning, the image of the eagle was sometimes used to portray Satan. One of the first images used to represent Christ – and by association Christians – was that of a fish. This explains why depictions of an eagle trampling or pecking at a fish were used to give it a demonic meaning. In the Bible it’s referred to as a detestable bird that cannot be eaten, as it is “an abomination” (Lev. 11, 13-14) and it’s also linked to rapaciousness and death: “From there it looks for food; its eyes detect it from afar. Its young ones feast on blood, and where the slain are, there it is” (Job. 39, 29-30).
However, again in connection with its positive powers, the eagle also represents generosity. No matter how great its hunger, it always leaves half its prey for the birds that fly with it.
Leaving aside its symbolism, the eagle is undoubtedly one of the most majestic birds on the planet and one of Nature’s most beautiful creations.
Basilica of Sagrado Voto Nacional in Quito (Ecuador).
Astorga Cathedral (Spain).
Braga Cathedral (Portugal).
Brussels Cathedral (Belgium).
Bordeaux Cathedral (France).
Burgos Cathedral (Spain).
Cork Cathedral (Ireland).
Palencia Cathedral (Spain).
Salamanca Cathedral (Spain).
Salamanca Cathedral (Spain).
CHARBONNEAU-LASSAY, L., El bestiario de Cristo. El simbolismo animal en la Antigüedad y la Edad Media, vols. I y II, Palma de Mallorca, José J. de Olañeta, Editor, 1997.
FERGUSON, G., Signs & symbols in Christian Art, New York, Oxford University Press, 1961.
GRIVOT, D., Le diable dans la cathedrale, Paris, Editions Morel, 1960.
MALAXECHEVERRÍA, I., Bestiario medieval, edición y traducción del inglés de I. Malaxecheverría, Madrid, Ediciones Siruela, S. A., 2008.
Doctora en Historia del Arte. Investigadora especializada en el estudio de las gárgolas.