As “king of the birds,” the eagle has been associated with political power since antiquity. It has served as the emblem for Russian czars, German kaisers, American presidents, and countless rulers of long-forgotten nation states and empires. In this post we’ll briefly survey the symbolic meanings and historical associations of the eagle as we view eight images that contain it.
Eagle as a Gospel Symbol My last post about the Four Evangelists described how the eagle is widely seen as a symbol for St. John’s gospel. This connection between the eagle and John dates to Christianity’s early days, and was a popular subject for stained glass artists and sculptors in the middle ages. The eagle appears at least three times at Chartres Cathedral to signify St. John, including in a stained glass medallion embedded within the West Rose (photos 1 and 2). The association between the fabled raptor and St. John continues in our time and is common in the art of modern churches (photos 3 and 4).
Along with the connection to John’s gospel, medieval scholars ascribed several other meanings to the eagle that are less familiar to most modern observers. The twelfth century understanding of the eagle was based in large part on an anonymous second century work called the Physiologus (the Naturalist) that was translated into Latin and circulated widely in medieval Europe. The Physiologus combined accepted “facts” about various creatures (often based on dubious science) with interpretive stories about them drawn from Biblical texts. The Physiologus provided source material for fables, bestiaries, and even sermons. These in turn gave inspiration to medieval artists from different backgrounds (photo 5).
Eagle as a Symbol of Christ Honorius of Autun, a twelfth century theologian, saw in the eagle a symbol for Christ’s Ascension. According to Emile Male in the The Gothic Image, Honorius’ sermon for the feast of the Ascension made the point that, “The eagle is of all creatures that which flies highest and alone dares to gaze straight into the sun…. Even so did Christ ascend into Heaven higher up than all the saints to his place on the right hand of the Father.” Perhaps the ivory carving on the head of a crozier, with an eagle standing on a book and confronting an “evil” serpent, derives from this symbolic link between the eagle and Christ, the mystical “Logos,” or Word, of whom St. John wrote (photo 6).
Eagle as a Resurrection Symbol Rabanus Maurus, writing in the ninth century, saw the eagle as a symbol for the Christian way of life. He wrote that the Christian must be as the eagle that flies upward looking straight into the sun, and so with eyes focused heavenward “contemplates the things of eternity.” For others, the eagle was a symbol for renewal or resurrection. This line of thinking goes back at least to pre-Christian Syria where tombs depict eagles leading souls of the deceased to heaven. It was thought that when eagles singe their feathers by approaching the sun that they could restore their plumage by plunging into water. A verse in Psalm 103, written hundreds of years before Christ, reinforced this view. The psalmist wrote, “Bless the Lord…who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”
Eagle as a Symbol of God’s Power One of my favorite eagle meanings hearkens back to the bird’s association with royal power. According to The Encyclopedia of Religion, the Romans expressed the divinity of their emperors through eagle symbolism. After the fourth century, Christians adopted the eagle as a symbol for the transformative power of the divine word. That’s why lecterns–where scripture is read to the congregation–are often cast in the form of an eagle. The great bird’s presence suggests that the Word of God has the power to lift the soul to spiritual heights, just as the eagle soars effortlessly and ever higher on an invisible updraft likened to the breath of God (photos 7 & 8, above).
Mike Klug, 08/02/2014, email@example.com