Sacred Symbols: The Eagle

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).

1. St. John's Eagle (below) and Abraham Rocking Souls in His Bosom, West Rose, Chartres Cathedral, France

1. St. John’s Eagle Symbol and Abraham Rocking Souls in His Bosom (above), West Rose Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

2. West Rose & Lancets, Chartres Cathedral, France

2. West Rose Window & Lancets, Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

2. Eagle, Symbol for St. John, Trinity Cathedral, Davenport, Iowa

3. Eagle Symbol for St. John, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Davenport, Iowa

3. St. John with Eagle, Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC

4. St. John with Eagle, Our Mother of Africa Chapel, Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC (click to enlarge)

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).


2. Eagle Fibulae (clasps for robes), 6th Century

5. Eagle Fibulae (cloak fasteners), 6th Century Visigoth, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

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).

3. Crozier with Eagle and Serpent, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

6. Crozier with Eagle, 13th Century, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (click to enlarge)

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.”

6. Eagle Lectern, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

7. Symbolic Eagle Lectern, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

7. Eagle Lectern, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

8. Symbolic Eagle Lectern, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

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,


Iconography 101: Bottom’s Up

It may be said that a medieval stained glass window, such as the Passion of Christ lancet at Chartres Cathedral (photo #1, click to enlarge), is like a vast page on which the artists (and the clerics who hired them) “wrote” stories from the Bible and lives of the saints.  Instead of words, the artists used dozens of panels with colorful miniaturized images, similar to cartoons, to convey meaning and the essence of a story. For those who try to read a medieval stained glass “page” for the first time, one small challenge they face is trying to figure out where to start. Is the window like a page in a novel that we read from left to right, or do we read it from right to left like a Hebrew text?

1. Passion of Christ Lancet Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

1. Passion of Christ Lancet Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

The answer for most of the thirteenth century stained glass at Chartres and other Gothic Cathedrals is “bottom’s up.” We start at the bottom and work our way to the top, reading from left to right. It seems to be a convention that most medieval artists followed with some exceptions. I noticed one fascinating exception in a series of scenes from the life of Christ on an altarpiece at the Toledo Cathedral in Spain. Several panels appeared to be out of sequence until I noticed that they followed a figure eight pattern. I couldn’t help but smile. The artist had made a clever allusion to the symbol for infinity in the arrangement! But the main thing to keep in mind is that there’s a pattern to follow. Once you know that, it’s easier to “read” a medieval stained glass window.

Today’s photos deal with scenes from Christ’s Passion with an emphasis on the events of Maundy Thursday, including the Last Supper and Jesus’ agony in the Garden.  I confess that I’ve had a hard time deciding what to omit from today’s post. Images of Christ’s Passion were common in the Middle Ages just as they are now. I’ve decided to start with Chartres Cathedral because its glass provided an important model that influenced other medieval artists, and artists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries too. From Chartres, we’ll jump across the pond (and seven centuries) to visit a handful of American churches that are slightly off the beaten path in Albany, NY, Durham, NC and Grand Rapids, MI.

The “Passion of Christ Lancet” at Chartres comprises fourteen panels that lead off with scenes of Christ’s Transfiguration in the bottom row. The second row up (photo #2) portrays two Maundy Thursday events, the Last Supper and Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. We’ll dwell on this second row for a few moments, and return to some of the scenes above it in later posts.

2. Last Supper and Jesus Washing Feet, Chartres Cathedral, France

2. Last Supper and Jesus Washing Feet, Chartres Cathedral, France

The story of Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples appears in all four canonical gospels, but the image at Chartres seems to derive from Luke’s gospel account. Look closely at the left panel in photo #2. You’ll see a man in the foreground with his arm on the table about to snatch a red fish from a plate. The fish is a symbol for Christ that has its origins in the acrostic the early Christians made by using ICHTHYS, the Greek word for fish. Loosely translated it means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Luke’s gospel says nothing about fish being the main course for dinner at the Last Supper, but it does say this in chapter 22: “But behold the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table.”  The fish thief, of course, is Judas whose plot with local authorities will snare Jesus before the night is through.

John’s gospel is the source for the foot-washing scene on the right. The account reports that, “he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.” Peter protested, asking why the Lord should wash his feet.  Jesus replied enigmatically, “What I am doing you do not understand, but afterward you will understand.” The foot-washing tradition continues. In some Christian churches, bishops and other clergy will wash parishioners’ feet today.

3. Last Supper, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

3. Last Supper, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

The stained glass image of the Last Supper (photo #3, above) at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan dates from the mid-twentieth century and communicates the Last Supper’s sacramental aspect by showing Jesus holding a white host, standing behind a chalice on the table, surrounded by his prayerful disciples.  The Last Supper window (photo #4, below) at Duke University Chapel takes a different approach by combining the last supper and foot washing scenes. Duke’s windows of Christ’s passion were designed with a unique monochrome style that, for some reason, reminds me of Spain.

Last Supper, Duke University Chapel, Durham, NC

4. Last Supper, Duke University Chapel, Durham, NC

After supper, Jesus went with his disciples to a garden called Gethsemane.   There, according to Luke’s gospel, while his friends drifted off to sleep, he knelt down and prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”   Shortly, a crowd led by Judas takes Jesus by force to the high priest for questioning.  The gospels all to imply that Jesus is resolved to his fate by the time he is taken into custody. A roundel window at Chartres (photo #5) captures the chaotic arrest scene (on the left) in which Peter offered armed resistance, earning a rebuke from Jesus.

Arrest in Gethsemane (left) & Flagellation, Chartres Cathedral, France

5. Arrest in Gethsemane (left) & Flagellation, Chartres Cathedral, France

The Gethsemane window (photos #6 and 7) at Albany’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral offers a marked contrast in its grand pictorial style to the condensed panels at Chartres. But it is typical of nineteenth and early twentieth century windows that portray Christ’s agony in the garden. The disciples are conked out in the foreground. Peter’s right hand holds the sword he will use shortly to cut off Malchus’ ear. As the disciples sleep, an angel delivers a goblet with a bitter draft that answers Jesus’ agonized prayer.

Gethsemane Window, Immaculate Conception Church, Albany, NY

6. Gethsemane Window, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY

Gethsemane Window Detail, Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Albany, NY

7. Gethsemane Window Detail, Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Albany, NY

The Gethsemane window at Duke’s Chapel (photo #8) shows Jesus in prayer as the mob arrives in the background at the door to the garden. The modern Gethsemane window (photo #9) at St. Mark’s in Grand Rapids captures the garden scene in a tight composition that’s reminiscent of the medieval style. Observe that a thinly drawn almond shape outlines the scene. This symbol, called a mandorla, is the space made by two intersecting circles. It has various meanings. One is that the mandorla is the intersection of two circles representing Christ’s human and divine natures.

8. Gethsemane Window, Duke University Chapel, Durham, NC

8. Gethsemane Window, Duke University Chapel, Durham, NC

Gethsemane Window, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

9. Gethsemane Window, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

Mike Klug,, 4/17/14