Animal Art

The most distinctive feature of English coinage of the first half of the eighth century is its portrayal of animals, to an extent found in no other European coinage of the Early Middle Ages. Representation of animals had been an integral part of both pagan Germanic art and Christian iconography, and is often found in surviving illuminated manuscripts, sculpture and metalwork. The animals were not merely illustrated out of an interest in the natural world. Each was imbued with meanings and acted as a symbol which would have been understood at the time.

Some animals, such as lions or peacocks, would have been known in England only through descriptions in texts or through images in manuscripts or on portable objects. It should not surprise us then if the renderings of them in Anglo-Saxon art stray far from reality, even transforming them into other beasts. Thus the lion may take on the appearance of a dancing horse or a sleek animal with a beak, or the snake may 'evolve' into a wolf. Today we may sometimes struggle to interpret the symbolism or to recognise the animal intended, but we can share the delight that the Anglo-Saxon artists took in portraying these birds and beasts. All the coins displayed here are silver pennies from the first half of the eighth century.

Birds

There is a great variety of birds portrayed in various settings. The bird-in-vine is a common theme and some of these have been seen on the second page of this exhibition. In addition to the dove, there are birds that suggested geese or swans with long necks, hens and possibly peacocks. Others have long legs suggesting they are waders, although too careful an analysis of attributes such as this may not be justified; for an East Anglian artist the first design of the four below may have been a generic 'bird'. Hens are occasionally represented in inhabited vine scrolls, e. g. on the stone frieze at Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leics., and they came to symbolise the Mother Church. The peacock appears in Christian art as a symbol of immortality and the Resurrection; it also features in the Book of Kells, made in the mid-8th century. The fourth design has its bird sitting on the arm of a standing figure; variants also exist (and are on display in the physical exhibition) which have the bird on the shoulder, or the figure seated. These images have been variously interpreted as a king with a falcon, St John with an eagle or St Oswald with a raven.

Image["Silver early penny, Series Q, CM.1903-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Dove or wader? with triquetra above. Silver early penny, Series Q, East Anglia. CM.1903-2007, De Wit Collection.

Image["Silver early penny, unrecorded type, CM.1843-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Hen, with comb and tail feathers, in a vine. Silver early penny, southern England. CM.1843-2007, De Wit Collection.

Image["Silver early penny, Series H, Hamwic, CM.1770-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Peacock in display with a crest on its head. Silver early penny, Hamwic (nr. Southampton). CM.1770-2007, De Wit Collection.

Image["Silver early penny, \'Animal Mask\' series, CM.1851-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Silver early penny, 'Animal Mask' series. CM.1851-2007, De Wit Collection.

Lions

Lions, often portrayed in Antiquity, developed in Christian art as allegories relating to Christ. In Insular manuscripts, such as the Echternach Gospels (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Lat. 9389), they are represented in many different forms, and the same is true of the coins. Artists, never having seen the animal, had to use their imagination. One of the earliest is on the coins of King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704): the mane and bushy tail are sufficiently represented to identify the beast, but as the same image is repeated on the coins of later Northumbrian kings it develops features reminiscent of a prancing horse. Feline heads and faces also seem to represent lions, leopards or panthers, which often seem to be interchangeable.

Image["Silver early penny, King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704), York mint; CM.1980-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Lion. Silver early penny, King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704), York mint. CM.1980-2007, De Wit Collection.

Image["Silver early penny, King Eadberht of Northumbria (738-58), York mint; CM.1988-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Lion. Silver early penny, King Eadberht of Northumbria (738-58), York mint. CM.1988-2007, De Wit Collection.

Image["Illumination of a lion from the Sacramentary of Gellone, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Lat. 12048, fo. 92v"]

Illumination of a lion wreathed in glory from the Sacramentary of Gellone, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Lat. 12048, fo. 92v, late-8th century (not to scale).

Image["Silver early penny, 'Animal Mask' series; CM.1848-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Lion's face. 'Animal Mask' series. CM.1848-2007, De Wit Collection.

Snakes and Wolves

Snakes are another traditional symbol that can bear both good and bad symbolism. In representations of the conflict between Good and Evil, the snake represents the Evil, but snakes can also be protective. In Germanic art they commonly have large heads with long jaws, which played a role in the development of the zoomorphic terminals found in much ornamental metalwork. Whether this head had its origins in a lion, wolf or other animal is much debated. For one of our Anglo-Saxon die-cutters it was clearly a wolf, and he gave it more realism providing it with fur and legs.

Image["Silver early penny, Series B, perhaps London c. 685; CM.1580-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Protective snake, encircling a bird on Cross. Silver early penny, Series B, perhaps London c. 685. CM.1580-2007, De Wit Collection.

Image["Silver early penny, Series K, South-East England; CM.1799-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Thin wire-like protective snake, around a wolf-headed snake. Silver early penny, Series K, South-East England. CM.1799-2007, De Wit Collection.

Snake - Wolf Transformation

Image["Silver early penny, Series K, South-East England; CM.1800-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Silver early penny, Series K, South-East England. CM.1800-2007, De Wit Collection.

Image["Silver early penny, Series K, South-East England; CM.1796-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Silver early penny, Series K, South-East England. CM.1796-2007, De Wit Collection.

Image["Silver early penny, Series K, South-East England; CM.1797-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Silver early penny, Series K, South-East England. CM.1797-2007, De Wit Collection.

Zoomorphic terminals

The canine-like animal heads, normally viewed from above, with flattened ears and bulging eyes, that are typical of ninth-century Anglo-Saxon metalwork, may well have evolved from the same imagery as the long-jawed serpents on the coins.

Image["Terminal of cast copper-alloy strap-distributor, probably for a piece of horse harness, 9th century; lent by Norwich Castle Museum, L2003.6"]

Terminal of cast copper-alloy strap-distributor, probably for a piece of horse harness, 9th century. Lent by Norwich Castle Museum, L2003.6.

Image["Silver cosmetic ear-scoop modelled with two bird heads; lent by Norwich Castle Museum, 2005.598)"]

Silver cosmetic ear-scoop modelled with two bird heads, one at the top of the shaft, the other at the distal end, the scoop extending from the bottom of the head like a duck's bill; 9th century. Lent by Norwich Castle Museum, 2005.598.

Snakes and birds

Snakes fighting birds occur in two separate coinages. In one the bird is severely threatened, while in the other the bird is clearly winning its battle.

Image["Silver early penny, Series J, perhaps York; CM.1794-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Eagle or dove threatened by large snake. Silver early penny, Series J, perhaps York. CM.1794-2007, De Wit Collection.

Image["Silver early penny, Series Q, East Anglia; CM.1898-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Bird with cross (thus allegory of Christ), triumphing over a snake. Silver early penny, Series Q, East Anglia. CM.1898-2007, De Wit Collection.

Stags and mythical beasts

Mythical hybrid animals, such as centaurs and winged quadrupeds, fascinated the Anglo-Saxons. They are found inhabiting the vine scroll in the frieze at Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leics., and occur on ornamental metalwork as well as the coins. The East Anglian stag, similar to some of the stick-like lions on other coins from that area, but clearly differentiated by antlers, makes an interesting comparison.

Image["Silver early penny, Series S, Essex or Middlesex, CM.567-2004; Fitzwilliam Museum"]

Female centaur, a horse with a human torso, holding palm branches. Series S, Essex or Middlesex? CM.567-2004, given by Colin Stewart.

Image["Silver early penny, Series Q, East Anglia; CM.1900-2007, De Wit Collection"]

Stag. Silver early penny, Series Q, East Anglia. CM.1900-2007, De Wit Collection.

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The Fitzwilliam Museum : Animal Art

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