George Zarnecki Archive

John Ramsey: A Sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral

This sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral was a favourite of George Zarnecki, former librarian of the Conway and Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute. In the latter part of the 20th century, he was a leading authority on sculpture of the Norman or Romanesque period.

Detail of capital 9 in St Gabriel's Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral depicting two partying goats.

St. Gabriel’s Chapel, Capital N.9. Canterbury Cathedral. Attribution: G. Zarnecki. CON_B00089_F002_026.

For his book English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140, he chose it as the image for the front cover. It is a carving on a capital of a pillar in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. It dates from 1070 and shows two animals playing musical instruments. The inspiration for the images came from local illuminated manuscripts.

Zarnecki acknowledged that showing animals playing musical instruments was a popular theme, as they featured in humorous folk tales and fables. However, he had not seen any other work to compare with the sophistication shown here. He was struck by the complex composition, the richness of the imagination and the superior quality of the draughtsmanship and modelling.

The purpose of the sculpture

 

In medieval thinking, the universe was divinely ordered so therefore everything could be given a theological explanation, and everything on earth reflected different aspects of Heaven.

In the middle ages, most people were illiterate, so sculpture and painting provided the images and pictures to illustrate sermons and stories. People lived in a harsh world full of superstition and fear of the unknown. They had the same IQ as ourselves, and exercised it through powerful imaginations, myth-making and storytelling, as they tried to make sense of the world.  Meanwhile, the Church aimed to secure a sense of awe and apprehension, a fear of divine retribution. So, popular images could be used to illustrate a moral message.

Churches were carved all over and painted. It was believed that they were seen not only by people but also by God, so symbolism had to be everywhere. 

Animals in the Medieval imagination

 

Medieval stories have attracted an extensive field of academic research, which tends to analyse stories as:

  • Fables with a strong moral tone, e.g. Aesop’s fables from the 5th century BC;
  • Myths: creation stories, focussed on Gods and mortals;
  • Folk tales, designed both for entertainment and for moral guidance. They were more playful and less structured. Stories were told and retold, continually changing and adapting, to reflect the point to be made, or the circumstances of the time. They were not written down until the 16th.

These categories overlapped of course. Also, stories travelled widely around the world along the trade routes and picked up many influences. Animals featured strongly. They developed specific characteristics, and many fantastical, mythical animals were created. Animals were seen as sources of instruction, as in the Book of Job: ‘’Ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee – and the fowls of the air’’ [Job 12:7]. 

Animal symbolism and musical instruments

 

Here are just a few examples, to provide some context for the animals in this picture:

  • A cat – represents laziness and lechery;
  • Playing a fiddle – suggests a mewing sound;
  • Dog – faithful, loyal, but also can be stupid and lustful;
  • Donkey – Christ’s beast of burden, or used derogatorily to represent either stupid or lower class people, but can also be lustful;
  • Goat – loves the mountains like Jesus, represents fertility but also the horned devil. Can represent intelligence and mischievousness. And lust.
  • Sheep – can represent Christ/the lamb of God. Indicates purity, gentleness, wisdom, but not as canny as goats. (It’s the only animal I can find who is not associated with lust!)
  • Playing a lute – suggests a bleating sound.

Sheep and goats were the earliest animals to be domesticated and feature heavily in folk stories. Animals from all over the world were introduced as these stories circulated, so non-indigenous types such as a mountain goat or ibex would feature in English folk tales.

What this carving shows

 

In order to understand it, I drew it as a simplified picture to clarify the detail that is hard to decipher from the photograph. I have also added in some features that look to have become worn or broken.

What I think I see is a sheep, an ibex, and a fantastical creature.

A sketch by John Ramsey.

The sheep is female and playing a violin or maybe a lute with a bow. She has a human torso which is smooth like skin, a human breast and hands, but hooves for feet. The sheep also has wings, is standing upright and appears to be singing.

The sex of the ibex is not visible, but it is playing a cornet or trumpet, so my assumption is that he is male. He has the head and body of a goat. He is playing the horn with his cloven forefeet. His hind feet, however, are human. His right foot appears to be wearing a shoe and is between the sheep’s instrument and her leg, possibly pointing towards her groin.

He is riding a creature which has the head of a dog, front legs with hooves but the tail of a fish. The creature is stretching back to bite the ibex, which may indicate that the ibex is planning mischief, or is making too much noise. (Where medieval animals are seen biting themselves, this means they have made a mistake and are punishing themselves. E.g. a wolf bites his foreleg if he treads on a stick and makes a noise as he creeps up on a chicken shed.)

Conclusion: The ibex is trying to seduce the sheep, who is pure. The instruments may indicate their respective voices or symbolise their sexual parts. One senses the sheep is wise and the ibex will have his work cut out!

What is the story?

 

There are many story and reference books, but from what I can find online there is no obviously popular story that could feature this scene. The crypt of Canterbury was a pilgrimage destination, so perhaps this and other wonderful carvings there were used to entertain them or to remind them of a clear moral point.

Would anyone like to write the story? Or offer an alternative interpretation of the picture?

References:

 

Zarnecki G (1951) English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140. London: Tiranti.

Kahn D (1991) Canterbury Cathedral and its Romanesque Sculpture. Austin: University of Texas Press. (Deborah Kahn was a pupil of Zarnecki and her work remains the definitive analysis of Canterbury Cathedral’s sculpture.)


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer