The winged Christ

Besides the hooking of Leviathan, the carvers seem to have been especially concerned with the representation of Christ as a bird. The theme derives from the Ransom theory, and is associated with the Descent of Christ into Hades. The metaphor of Christ as a bird (often a vulture) had been in currency since the beginning of the third century. The pictorial carvings on the Stone font depict Christ not only as a man, but also as a bird pecking at the monster.

 

Webb explains that in the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for holy souls and even for Christ to be depicted with wings. Sometimes a bird appears as the symbol of Christ, accompanying or assisting him in the fight against evil. Cynewulf speaks of Christ as “the dear bird” – and Christ was not uncommonly depicted as a vulture or an eagle. These are birds with a high vantage point in surveying the earth below. 

 

Gregory explains the symbolism of the vulture:

 

‘Who is denoted in this place by the title of ‘the bird’ saving He who, in ascending, poised skywards the fleshly body which he took to Himself? Who, furthermore, is fitly designated by the title of “The Vulture” as well? [...] whilst remaining in the loftiness of His Divine Nature, marked as it were from a kind of flight on high the carcase of our mortal being down below, and let Himself drop from the regions of heaven to the lowest places.  For in our behalf He vouchsafed to become man, and while he sought the dead creature, He found death among us, who was deathless in Himself.  Now ‘the eye’ of this ‘vulture’ was the actual aiming at our Resurrection, because He Himself being dead for three days set us free from everlasting death.  And so that faithless people of Judaea saw Him in the state of mortality, but how by His death He should destroy our death, it noted not. [...] Which People [...] ‘knew not the pathway of the bird’.

Gregory (op.cit.) XVIII:54

 

Gregory quotes from Job 28:7 in the Vulgate version:  "Therefore the pathway of the Bird it knew not, neither beheld the eye of the Vulture."

 

In the In Principio page of the monastic Floreffe Bible, the Bird rests in the lap of God the Father. The page is based on St. John’s Gospel. In the centre of the lower row Christ is shown as a bird in the lap of God. The page is designed as a doctrinal statement supported by prophetic texts and visual images taken from the Jewish scriptures.

 

Examples of a winged Christ are found in several twelfth century Anglo-Norman carvings. There is a fine example in a miniature painting within the St. Albans Psalter, dating from 1123 or earlier and now at Hildesheim, Germany. The Winged Christ accompanied by his symbol, the Vulture, at his feet. The soul of Mary, the Mother of Christ, is depicted with wings on a wall painting in the 12th century cave church of Goreme in Cappadocia.  

 

There are a number of representations of the winged Christ in English churches. At Flax Bourton in Somerset, we are shown the winged figure of Christ descending to stop the mouth of Death (Leviathan) with his Cross.  Christ flourishes the sword with which he will dismember Leviathan.

THE FLOREFFE BIBLE C. 1154

British Library

Illumination from the St Albans Psalter

The tympanum in Flax Bourton Church, Somerset