Thursday, September 24, 2009

Elephants in England

click photo to enlarge
The first elephant that was brought to England during historic times came in the Roman invasion of AD43, and is noted as being at Colchester. No further records of elephants in these islands exist until 1255 when Louis IX of France gave Henry III one for his menagerie that was housed at the Tower of London. Matthew Paris drew this animal for inclusion in his bestiary, and a contemporary carving of it can be seen on a misericord at Exeter Cathedral.

It is unlikely that too many elephants found their way across the English Channel during the Middle Ages, but the beast certainly became known through bestiaries similar to Matthew Paris's. These volumes collected drawings and writing about real and mythical animals. In particular they described the peculiar features of each animal, and what they symbolised. Church sculptors, painters, carvers and glaziers, as well as illustrators and writers made extensive use of these descriptions. Thus, the pelican represented Christ's sacrifice because it was said to peck its own breast and feed its offspring with its own blood, and can frequently be seen in church fittings doing just this. The Christian triumph over death and Christ's resurrection were associated with the phoenix, the mythical bird that rose from the dead in flames. Elephants often had a long entry in bestiaries, and were illustrated in warlike postures with small castles (howdahs) on their backs. They were described as intelligent, with a prodigious memory, gentle, afraid of mice, and protective of their comrades. However, this particular animal is more often associated with eastern religions than Christianity, though occasionally they can be seen in churches trampling snakes and representing Christ overcoming death and evil.

Today's photograph shows an elephant gargoyle on the church of St Peter & St Paul, Gosberton, Lincolnshire. It is the only gargoyle that I know in this form, and is contemporary with the tower which probably dates from the late 1300s. Did the people who carved this head ever see a real elephant? It's unlikely, but they would have been familiar with its illustration in the bestiaries, the inspiration for many of their grotesque and fantastic gargoyle faces. The lead spout formed into the animal's trunk catches one's eye when you look upwards, and probably dates from the church's Victorian restoration. However, I like to think that it was the medieval sculptors who first fitted one when they placed the head here as the exit for water draining from the top of the tower.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 150mm (300mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/1600
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On