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Thread: Stags and Snakes in Classical art

  1. #16
    Ah, you refer to Qasr el-Lebia! Yes, I am familiar with those mosaics, in fact they are what sparked my interest in the subject in the first place A friend of mine wrote her PhD on the mosaic floors of that church, which also provided me with some inspiration.

    I have completed my dissertation now and have handed it in. I don't know if I can post it up here, but I can give a rundown of what I went through:

    I briefly introduced Wittkower's article on eagle and snake iconography to distinguish my hypothesis from his own: he believed that as the motif spread and diffused across cultures over thousands of years, it retained the fundamental elements of its original meaning (i.e. it often represents some form of cosmological tension, no matter where it is to be found). By contrast, the stag and snake motif seems to have originated as a rather mundane and non-allegorical anecdote of Graeco-Roman natural history, which was adopted by Christianity and imbued with a whole new level of religious symbolism.

    Chapter One - Manuscripts
    Here I spoke about the appearance of the stag and snake motif in bestiary manuscripts of the 12th- and 13th- centuries, discussing how such manuscripts deployed animals as symbols of how to lead a virtuous Christian life. The prototype of the bestiary was the Physiologus, which appears to have been a very popular and widely disseminated text. Here, the stag was said to destroy the serpent (or dragon) with the waters of 'indescribable wisdom' - an allusion to Psalm 42. Clearly, the stag stood for Christ and the serpent stood for Satan.

    Chapter Two - Mosaics
    Here I went back further in time, looking at how stags and snakes have been portrayed in mosaics from late antiquity up to the 12th century. I started with the apse mosaic at San Clemente, which likens the Church of Christ to the vine. Two stags drink from the four rivers of Paradise in this mosaic - another allusion to Psalm 42, 'As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul for thee O God'. So here I looked at the two animals individually, establishing the stag as a symbol of the catechumen about to be baptised, and the snake as a malevolent force of wickedness and temptation. Unfortunately, the 9,000 word limit meant I couldn't go into such detail as Melanie described above - thank you for that by the way! - but I covered the essentials. I then brought the two animals back together by looking at mosaics of their conflict from sites such as Qasr el-Lebia, Henchir Messaouda and the Great Palace of Constantinople. I found these more difficult to interpret, since the primary source material for their creation is not immediately clear - Physiologus? Pliny? Etc.

    Chapter Three - Metamorphoses
    So this chapter established the pre-Christian heritage of the motif, tracing it back to scholars and poets such as Lucretius, Pliny, Plutarch, Aelian etc. It concluded that the belief that stags eat snakes was merely an accepted 'fact' of natural history which did not require explanation through etiological myth. It demonstrated how the stag was not necessarily a positive symbol in ancient Greece and Rome - indeed, it seems to have been regarded as a timid, proud, vain, lustful and jealous beast most of the time - hardly appropriate characteristics for what would become an agent of Christ! On the other hand, the snake was a much more positive symbol during this time - a symbol of Asclepius, the god of healing and medicine, among other gods such as Athena, Apollo and Hermes. It was often kept in the Roman domicile as a pet, where it was no-doubt perceived as a protector of the household. This seems evident in Pompeii, where it was closely associated with the Lares on lararium shrines.

    Essentially, I wanted to demonstrate how the 'symbolic trajectories' of the stag and serpent changed significantly as the motif of their conflict diffused from Graeco-Roman paganism to Christianity. The whole intention was to show how original meanings associated with forms can often be drastically altered as they are adopted by exterior cultures. In summary, the stag went from being viewed as a timid beast to a noble animal associated with baptism and Christ, whereas the snake went from being a revered and respected animal to a symbol of the ultimate evil. The Graeco-Roman idea of the snake-eating stag probably seemed like a godsend to early Christians who were keen to spread the word of the Lord and demonstrate the power of Christ over the force of darkness!

    Man does it feel good to finally be finished writing this thing! I have only three exams remaining before my degree is complete. I'm looking forward to a bit of a break from studying! Thanks again for all your help and suggestions.
    Last edited by TheOnyxDragon; 05-16-2015 at 04:57 PM.

  2. #17
    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Congratulations! I'm glad you already knew about the Libyan mosaics. Wasn't it weird to see that satyr in a mosaic from a Christian church? I know artistic motifs can hang on for some time, but that one seemed to be pushing the envelope to me. In any case, enjoy your break and please don't be a stranger around this place. It's been great to have someone to talk with about the Western Classical Antiquity. Congratulations again.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

  3. #18
    Thank you! It is indeed odd to see the four river of Paradise represented by river deities among other classical motifs. This is why I'm not convinced that the stag and snake motifs at Qasr el-Lebia relate to baptism or the fight between good and evil (there is a second stag and snake motif in the same church in case you were not aware - the one on display on the museum's website was from the nave, whereas a second was found in an adjacent chapel. It depicts the conflict rather than the outcome). Also, there are other themes of animal violence at Qasr el-Lebia which do not seem to make any sense in a Christian context - an eagle preying on a gazelle/antelope, for example.

    My supervisor has been running a series of extra-curricular weekly seminars over the past year. Recently, we have been discussing mosaics that he and a group of my friends saw on a recent trip to Morocco (unfortunately I could not join them). The image of a tortoise being released from a trap by a putto in one such mosaic (I forget the location) sparked interest into what the animal stood for. There are a few instances in early Christian art where the tortoise is paired with the rooster, perhaps in an antagonistic fashion, not unlike the stag and snake have been - an example can be seen in the floor mosaic of the basilica of Aquileia. Perhaps a future project (read: sequel) is in the works somewhere?

  4. #19
    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    I'm looking forward to the sequel.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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