Girona Beatus

Girona Beatus f. 18v, Allegorical conclusion of the Christological cycle: The bird and the snake


f. 18v, Allegorical conclusion of the Christological cycle: The bird and the snake

Situated at the end of the Gospel cycle is a scene, somewhat off centre due to the folio having been trimmed in successive bindings, which again covers an entire page but has no frame – an indication of its ancient origin. The Incarnation or a symbolic portrait of Christ overcoming the devil is depicted allegorically in the form of a bird fighting a serpent. The image in the Gerona Beatus shows firstly a very decorative tree on the left with a fine trunk, a wide crown and a great many birds and fruit. Close to its roots is a legend that reads: “arborem sublimam adque bustum”, and alongside is a large bluish-colour bird with an outspread tail poking its beak into the crested head of a large snake whose body coils around twice. The meaning of the image is explained by a text written, in the Gerona Beatus, on folio 19v, i.e. quite a distance from the image, perhaps as a result of an error during binding which prevented the text from being next to the image, and which is laid out, as in the other manuscripts in which it appears, except in the Saint-Sever Beatus, in a cross shape in an attempt to merge the illustration and text together in the same image, resulting in a composition that became commonplace in the eastern and western manuscripts of the early Middle Ages. The text on f. 19v, outlined by a vermilion line with stylised foliate motifs in the corners and crenellated shapes on the crosspiece, reads: “Quedam esse auis in regione orientis asse[ri]-/tur que grandi et perduro armatoque/rostro contra draconem quem audacius/lacessit sibilis puganturam/cenum de industria expetit e cuius uoluta-/bro tetro habitu infecta sordescit et diverso-/rum gemmas colorum quibus eam/induligentjas natura depinxit /Ut humili despecta uestita ita hostem nobitate deterreat et quasi uilitatis sue securita-/te decipiat caudam uelut scutum ante faciem suam quedam arte bellatoris opponit au-/daci impetus in caput aduersarii furentis adsurgit inprouiso oriis sui telo stupentis bestie/cerebrum fodit et sic mire calliditatis ingenio in manem prosternit inimicum./Item d[omi]n[u]s hac redemtor noster contra sp[iritu]m serpentis antiqui humani generis supplantatorem /in forma hominis pugnaturus ad militjam/salutis pupplice humana se infirmata et precin-/xit hac luto se n[o]s[tr]e carnis inuolbit ut impi-/um deceptorem pia fraude deciperet et postre-/mis priora celauit et uelut caudam/humanitatis ante faciem diuinitatis ob/iecit et tamquam rostro fortissimo uenena-/tam ueteris homicide/malitjam uerbo sui oris/extinxit/unde et ap[o]st[o]l[u]s dixit/uerbo oris sui interficiet impium/EXPLI/CIT”. Although the source of this passage is unknown, its basic characteristics do appear in the description of the ichneumon in the Latin Physiologus (“There exists an animal called the ichneumon, the enemy of the dragon. When it sees a dragon, it approaches it, smears itself in mud, covers its muzzle with its tail, hiding itself and swelling up; in this way it attacks the dragon until it kills it./Likewise did our Saviour, assuming the substance of an earthly body, the body he received from Mary, remain steadfast until he killed the spiritual pharaoh dragon that lives on the banks of the rivers of Egypt, i.e. the devil”) more than in any other source put forward until now .

Firstly, the tree next to which the fight takes place is interpreted as a plastic illustration of the passage Matt. 13: 31-32 concerning the parable of the mustard seed, the smallest of seeds and yet a tree grows from it in which birds build their nests. St Jerome interprets this in his Commentaries on St Matthew (l. II) as follows “These birds are the souls of the saints or spirits that serve the Lord. This tree, or the seed, is the image of the kingdom of Heaven” , which matches the meaning of the battle between the bird and the snake perfectly. Not all authors agree about the identity of the bird: some believe it to be an eagle , while others, more accurately, associate it with a peacock . The theme of the battle between the bird and snake was so widespread in Mediterranean Antiquity before Christendom that artists were able to choose between interpreting it according to the oriental stylisation that originated in Syria or the more naturalist representations of the ancient Greco-Roman world including Byzantium. In this respect, En chose to give the bird a clearly oriental appearance related to the “regione orientis” in the legend that gives pride of place not to an eagle but to a peacock of Sassanian origin. This bird with its outspread tail is often found in Sassanian items made of precious metals and in certain fabric items. Amongst the many birds to be found in Sassanian and post-Sassanian iconography, the peacock with its upright tail is a highly specific type that can immediately be classified. Likewise, this bird is depicted in most representations holding an object halfway between a plant stem and a snake-shape creature in its beak. This extremely particular version of the peacock spread far beyond its area of origin and is found in the Latin West, in Visigothic sculpture, particularly in the late-seventh-century decoration at Quintanilla de las Viñas, where it adorns, along with other birds, the vine leaves depicted upon the voussoirs of the triumphal arch set very close to the altar, thereby converting this bird, in the Christian tradition, into a symbol of the eternal life of Christians in Christ.

An eagle could have been expected to be shown in this representation or even some sort of wading bird, attacking the snake – one of the most ancient figurative topics used to portray the fight between two antagonistic powers. However, as mentioned above, the artist preferred the eastern image of the peacock, a bird that had never been depicted in this context before, thereby introducing an innovative element into the ancient topos of the fight against the snake and casting doubts over its meaning. The peacock has been considered to be both a symbol of the souls already in eternal paradise and a sign of the beatitude of the chosen ones and the immortality they have been promised . St Augustine mentions the incorruptible nature of its flesh as an allegory of the immortality of the soul. The fact that it appears almost exclusively in stemma IIb Beatus, beginning with the Gerona manuscript, makes it reasonable to think that this image was introduced into the Commentary codices as a new element of said stemma . Its dissemination in other far later manuscripts in western, Hispanic kingdoms is possibly the result of the impact and originality of this image in Beatus manuscripts. Furthermore, whereas the versions with the eagle always show it simply clutching the reptile in its claws or, at the very most, biting its neck, the eagle is always shown in Beatus manuscripts sinking its beak into the snake’s head. This detail is obviously related to the text which can in turn be associated with a writing by Peter of Capua which says that the snake is so astute that it safeguards its head like life itself for even if wounded or separated from the body, it flees unless completed destroyed (Ad litte., XVII, art. 90). The upright position of the snake is implicitly defined in the text as being a characteristic of the aggressor.

Carlos Miranda García-Tejedor
Doctor in History
(Fragment of the Girona Beatus commentary volume)

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