Christopher Howse devotes his Sacred Mysteries column this week to medieval depictions of elephants, pointing out that:
Two things that we assume about elephants – that they never forget and that they are afraid of mice – come from the medieval bestiaries, those written compilations of moralising natural history that were popular for hundreds of years.
His article was prompted by a picture of one of Exeter Cathedral’s wonderful 13th-century misericords (with each of the pictures in this post, click for full-size version – they’re worth it):
…[t]he unusual thing about the carved elephant is its naturalistic accuracy. Normally, medieval elephants are depicted as fanciful.
In particular, he singles out the Aberdeen Bestiary of c.1200, which depicts “an elephant being strangled in the coils of a marvellous, elongated purple dragon with red wings”:
He suggests that the Exeter misericord may have been inspired by “the only drawing made by an Englishman of the 13th century who had seen an elephant”, namely “Matthew Paris (1200-59), an engaging figure, a gifted chronicler and artist and an endlessly interested observer”.
Paris was fascinated by an elephant that King Louis IX of France had sent as a gift to King Henry III of England, and produced two surviving drawings of the animal, one of which includes its keeper, “Henricus de Floy”, drawn in outline:
What is significant about both Paris’ picture and the Exeter misericord is that they depict the elephant’s ears correctly (unlike the picture from the Aberdeen Bestiary), and include knees low down on the elephant’s legs, in contrast to the medieval bestiaries which depicted elephants without knee-joints. This leads Howse to recount the following tale of medieval beliefs about elephants, and the spiritual lesson they drew from this:
[A]ccording to the sources on which bestiaries drew, the elephant has no leg joints, and sleeps leaning against a tree. Hunters in India were said to saw partly through a tree so that when the elephant leant on it, the beast would fall and be unable to get up again.
When a fallen elephant trumpeted in alarm, and its fellows gathered around, then neither 12 elephants together nor one great elephant could raise it from the ground, but only a small elephant using its trunk. This characteristic was moralised by the explanation that neither the old law nor the 12 prophets could raise a fallen sinner, but only the power of the meek and humble Christ.
In the light of that little parable, the fact that elephants do in fact have knees comes as something of a disappointment – like discovering that pelicans don’t in fact feed their young with their own blood, a belief that led to the pelican becoming a popular Christian symbol in the medieval church.
Update: One reason I like that image of the fallen elephant being raised by the small elephant is the total helplessness of the fallen elephant. This picture excludes any notion of God “not withholding his grace from those who do what lies within their power”, and provides yet another reminder of how, despite the errors that crept in during the middle ages, God never withdrew his gospel from the church.