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From the Aspe Mosaic in the Dome over the Altar in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome,

The Stag comes to us out of the Scriptures and from the Christian symbology of the Middle Ages. The image of the Stag, who is a relentless enemy of the snake, mysteriously arises and appears in art, mosaics, tapestries, and stained glass windows that adorn cathedral walls of Europe and everywhere on baptismal founts made of ivory and metal work.

Why is this? Because Christian art that adorned the great Cathedrals and icons of the Medieval church meant to carry the messages of Scripture to the general populous who were illiterate and could not read. The pictures and images were meant to convey the Gospel and the revelation of Jesus Christ and what He had done in the world.

In these depictions, the Stag is often seen trampling upon a serpent, swallowing a snake, and drinking from rivers of water. The Stag announces the power of water baptism and the promise of abundant life and victory over the serpent and his works. Just as Israel crossed through the Red Sea and the Jordan River into the Land of Promise, Jesus invites us to cross over into His kingdom and receive His promises of life and immortality.

It was believed in the Middle Ages ( 500-1500 AD) that the world itself was the Word of God and that every living thing had its own spiritual meaning. This of course is confirmed in Scripture in David’s praise in Psalm 19: “God’s splendor is a tale that is told, written in the stars. Space itself speaks His story through the marvels of the heavens. His truth is on tour in the starry vault of the sky, showing his skill in creation’s craftsmanship. Each day gushes out its message to the next, night by night whispering its knowledge to all—without a sound, without a word, without a voice being heard, yet all the world can hear its echo. Everywhere its message goes out.” (vs. 1-2)

The Old Testament prophets also taught through symbolic allegory often using different animals which carried a prophetic code revealing truth. They used lions, bears, leopards, eagles, the leviathan, horses, serpents, crows, donkeys, deer, doves, foxes, jackels, lambs, etc. All these and many more held spiritual meaning.

Paul agreed with this truth that God’s messages can be seen through creation. Writing to the Roman church he explained, “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.” ( Romans 1:20)

Taking their clue from the Bible, Medieval Christian monks composed magnificently illustrated volumes called Bestiaries of animals and creatures – all done by hand since this was before there was a printing press. In the ensuing centuries, the information about animals compiled in the Bestiaries would become the foundation of the emerging science of natural history and the beginning of the encyclopedia..

The Bestiaries

In the volumes of Bestiaries, the natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson that was an allegory symbolizing complex aspects of the Christian faith. As these stories became widely known, emblems of various animals would “escape” from these gilded pages to show up in art all over medieval Europe. The Bestiary was used as a reference to the symbolic language of animals in Western Christian art and literature. The legacy of these stories had such a far reaching effect that they still impact art and literature today.

Good writing is often characterized by imagery. God often uses images to hide truth from the uninitiated or the unconfirmed. The truth is that images can tell us more in one glance and leave a more profound and long lasting effect on us than pages of words can ever tell. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” We would do well if we took a minute and paused to think about the biblical truth hidden in the image of the Stag because in addition to words, images are also a language of the Holy Spirit, testified to throughout the pages of Scripture.

Early Bestiaries describe the Stag as a relentless enemy of snakes. In describing the habits of the Stags, it was recorded that Stags pursue snakes into their holes or rock crevices, flushing them out by flooding the hole with the breath or water from its mouth, and devouring them. The Stag then finds water and drinks large amounts of it to overcome the poison, and is renewed. When the Stag is renewed it sheds its horns, which is viewed as resurrection life. So also, says the Bestiary, is the Christian saved, for ”sin’s trace is lost when in the baptism he is washed.” (Biedermann, 93) That is a simple but very profound thought if you actually believe that it is true as the Scriptures teaches this.

The Apse Mosaic in San Clemente

The Stag is found in the apse mosaic above the altar in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome which is considered one of the greatest art treasures in the world. It was built on the site of an early Christian house church.

The focal jeus_sideimg point of this stunning mosaic is Christ on the Cross, depicted as the true Tree of Life. At the top we see the hand of the Father reaching out to receive His Son on the cross for the salvation of the world. And believe this, no matter how long it takes, God will get the intention of His sacrifice – the world will be saved!

The cross emerges out of a tree, most probably signifying the tree of life, and is then wrapped with vines. Branching out from the tree on both sides are swirling vines that cover the entire mosaic. These vines give shelter to all of humanity.

Four streams flow out from the tree at its base beneath the cross, reminding us of the four rivers of Eden sent out to water the earth. These rivers also remind us of the river of waters flowing from God’s throne in the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from God – watering the trees “whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.”

These rivers speak to us of New Covenant Glory, of paradise restored because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They also symbolize the rivers that Jesus foretold would burst out from the believer and flow out into the world from all those who would come to Him to drink. (Genesis 2, v.10-14; John 7:37-38; Rev.22:1-2 ).

Called into the Quest

The cross is studded with 12 doves symbolizing the 12 apostles who were invited along with anyone else who should believe, to take up their cross and follow Him. At the bottom are 12 sheep representing the 12 Apostles walking away from miniature depictions of the walled cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem towards an apocalyptic lamb with a halo with a cross inserted it, signifying Jesus the Risen Lamb from whom the Apostles obtained their commission to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. We are a fruit of their work and we are reminded to follow their example and continue to take the Gospel to all nations and teach the nations of the world to observe Jesus commandments.

The red serpent at the foot of the cross reminds us of the Messianic prophecy given to Adam and Eve that the serpent shall bruise His heal, but that the seed of the woman – Jesus – will crush the serpent’s head. The three Stags at the foot of the cross drinking from the rivers of water recall David’s Psalm 42.1: “As the ( deer) yearns for streams of water, so my soul is yearning for you, my God”. The Hebrew word translated “deer” or “hart” actually should be translated “Stag” – a male deer. This is important because David is describing himself not as a timid deer but an aggressive Stag. He is not a believer in karma or whatever will be will be. The Stag at the base of the cross is seen swallowing the red snake and drinking along with the two Stags drinking from the rivers pouring out from the tree of life, emphasizing the responsibility of the believer to destroy the devil’s works and transform the world through the power of Christ’s life giving Spirit.

Creation Waits

These same waters are nourishing a beautiful array of images: birds, hinds, baskets filled with fruit, a shepherd minding his sheep and a woman feeding her chickens. And not least, we see two peacocks, one on each side of the stags. According to ancient beliefs, the peacock had pure immortal flesh – therefore they became associated with the resurrection of Christ.

Taken together, these images remind us that all things in nature and culture find their origin in the life-generating power of the Cross and that all creation is waiting for God’s sons – those who are led by His Spirit — to be revealed so they may be delivered from their bondage to corruption and enter into the glorious liberty of God’s children. (Romans 8)

This is the Truth of the Gospel and the Mission and Quest of Jesus Christ, foretold by the Hebrew prophets, taught by Jesus Himself, preached by the Apostles, told by the early church, and testified to by the Christian art of the Medieval Ages for over 1000 years. Any message preached today that is less than this message is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The kingdoms of this world shall become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ and He shall reign forever


by Rose Weiner

The Symbol of the Stag in Medieval Art

by Rose Weiner

The Symbol of the Stag in Medieval England