Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 ErN 88,  entry June 2003

Bird Symbolism & Amalfi

Even a cultural oaf such as myself is overwhelmed by the Amalfi cathedral: The beautiful façade portraying Christ between the symbols of the Evangelists, which, fittingly, gleams so brightly in the noonday sun that you have to avert your eyes; the thousand-year-old bronze doors from Constantinople; the Arab–inspired multihued majolica tiles of the dome; an altar designed by the great Domenico Fontana; the crypt containing the remains of St. Andrew (to whom the cathedral is dedicated) —all of it is stunning. (Also see this separate entry on Amalfi.) 

In a state, then, of clear and present overstun, I was left to wonder about two mundane items that caught my attention. One was this reference to the above-mentioned remains:

The bones of St. Andrew, enclosed in three beautifully decorated cases, emanate an extraordinary substance: Manna.

I don't know quite what to make of that. Manna is one of the many things I know very little about, but I had always thought it referred to the substance mentioned in the 16th chapter of Exodus, the food miraculously supplied to the Children of Israel during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness:  

…and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey...

 My OED now tells me, however, that "manna" is also   

...A sweet pale yellow or whitish concrete juice obtained from incisions in the bark of the Manna-ash, Fraxinus Ornus, chiefly in Calabria and Sicily; used in medicine as a gentle laxative. Also, a similar exudation obtained from other plants.
I am not sure what all that means.  I am irreverently —but briefly— reminded of Mark Twain's comment that Christ had 12 disciples and that 13 of them are buried in Germany. I suppose it is equally irreverent to suppose that the bones of a dead person —even a saint— might provide food for those so inclined. I shall have to let that go for a while.

The item that really caught my attention was the statue of a bird (photo, above), standing upright, wings outspread, high enough (about five feet) to partially occlude the lectern it was placed in front of. The tour-guide who had known every little thing about every handle and hinge on the bronze doors of the cathedral tried to drag us right by the bird with no comment. I asked. She didn't know. Fine, it happens. No hard feelings, but I had to know. It was clearly out of place, gray and drab—but totally surrounded by splendor. The first problem was to figure out what kind of bird it was. The wings were no help. They looked angelic and out-of-place on any avian species I was familiar with—except for that race of Hawk Men in the old Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s.

The eagle, symbol of
St. John, from the Book
of Kells

What birds are symbolic in the Christian faith? That might help. The list is impressive: the dove, eagle, pelican, stork, crane, swan, and even the vulture (sometimes allegorized as the purifier of the world and the vanquisher of the infernal serpent). More obvious is the mythological phoenix seen as a symbol of Christ and His resurrection. In general, the flight of the bird represents the soul as opposed to the earthbound body, and in art there are many depictions of the infant Jesus holding a bird in his hand, suggesting the idea of the soul incarnated in the body. There are abundant passages in scripture that mention birds: 

—Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves. (Matt. 10:16)

—They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles." (Isa. 40: 31)

—As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings; so the Lord alone did lead him." (Deut.32: 10-12)

—And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him...(Luke 3:22)

and even

—The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully, but they cannot compare with the pinions and feathers of the stork. (Job: 39:13)

And so on. It is a very long and complicated list to thresh out for allegorists. The statue in the Amalfi cathedral really didn't look like a dove, which had been my first intuition. An eagle? Maybe. My wife was of the opinion that it looked like some kind of a "stretched chicken".

"Hah. There are no chickens in Christian symbolism," I said profoundly. 
"What about where Jesus says to Peter: 'The cock shall not crow till thou hast denied me thrice.'?" 
"A cock is not a chicken." 
"A cock is Mr. Chicken." 

A cock is Mr. Chicken. Wifely hermeneutics can be enlightening at times. Assuming this not to be one of those times, I put Mr. Chicken on the back-burner with the Hawk Men.

I called the Amalfi archdiocese and spoke to a knowledgeable young man. Indeed, the statue is of an eagle and represents St. John the Evangelist. Every evangelist is represented by an animal. The eagle represents St. John because in his Gospel, St. John sees with the unflinching eye of an eagle the highest truths in the divinity of Christ, the Redeemer. The statue seemed —was— out of place because it had, in fact, been moved to be in front of a lectern in the main part of the church in keeping with this spirit of the Evangelist, the preacher. Originally, the statue had been in the baptistery. The eagle, it seems, is a symbol of baptism, as well.  It was a belief among the ancients that the eagle could renew its youth by plunging three times into pure water. Indeed, Terence Hanbury White's translation of a 12th-century bestiary tells us:

...when the eagle grows old and his wings become heavy and his eyes become darkened with a mist, then he goes in search of a fountain...and he dips himself three times in it and he is renewed with a great vigour of plumage and slendour of vision...Do the same thing, O Man, you who are clothed in the old garment and have the eyes of your heart growing foggy. Seek for the spiritual fountain of the Lord...
And in the 103rd Psalm, David says:

...who satisfieth thy mouth with good things 
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's...

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