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The hare as Medieval textile symbol

As I sit down to write the first entry for our bestiary, it is the Year of the Rabbit. So, let’s begin with our long-eared friends and what they may have meant to Medieval weavers. Depictions of hares and rabbits on textiles of this period are not entirely common, but they were loaded with symbolism.

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings

Humble patron of good tidings

rabbit in the moon, moon rabbit

After three tough years, it's the Year of the Rabbit at last! If you hadn’t been looking forward to it already, maybe you should have been, because this sign is said to bide good fortune and security.

If the humble rabbit cannot compete in the popular imagination with flashier mystical beasts like the lion, phoenix, or chimera, its ancient symbolism still secures it a nice, warm spot in the pantheon and even lends it a measure of divine significance.

Celts, the goddess Ostara, and the Easter bunny

The ancient Celts associated the hare with the menstrual cycle and the moon. The pagan goddess Ostara was associated with the hare as a fertility symbol due to its great powers of reproduction.

Monks carrying Christianity to pagan lands coopted local rites of spring, incorporating them into the celebration of the Resurrection.

It seems that in the Middle Ages these celebrations were embellished, with the goddess Ostara taking on a role as a friend to children. For their entertainment, she turned her bird into a rabbit that laid brightly colored eggs that she gave them as gifts.

Easter celebrations like this were described in fifteenth-century Germany, but they seem to have really taken off in Victorian England. This is where the Easter celebration that we know today comes from, with its clear symbolism of rebirth and fertility.

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Moon rabbit concocting an elixir of immortality, Taoist robe, China, 17th century [2]

Virtuous white rabbit

As the Celts in the West celebrated the arrival of spring and female fertility, in the East an entirely different story unfolded around the rabbit. Of course, it is also associated with the moon.

The most widely circulated moon rabbit legend comes from China (see the next section for the whole story) but it is not the oldest. 

India’s Buddhist tradition placed the rabbit on the moon well before that.

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Embroidered white rabbit with Chinese symbol “shòu” 壽 for longevity, China, 16th–17th centuries [3]

The story goes that the white rabbit was the reincarnation of Shakyamuni Buddha. As a rabbit, he spread virtue and goodness among the animals and when the moon was full, he instructed them to bring food to poor beggars.

It was then that he realized that he himself had no food to offer that men could eat, so he offered his own body.

The god Shakra honored the rabbit’s sacrifice by carving his image into the moon so that whenever people looked up, they would see this symbol of piety and self-sacrifice. Try it the next time there’s a clear night under a full moon and see if you can find the rabbit.

rabbit in the moon, moon rabbit
Moon rabbit concocting an elixir of immortality, textile fragment, China, 17th century [3]

The moon rabbit, lovely Chang’e, and the elixir of immortality

In Chinese mythology, the moon rabbit legend involves the exquisitely beautiful lady Chang’e, whose husband, a warrior and archer named Hou Yi, was awarded the elixir of immortality as a reward for his courageous deeds.

We don’t know just how it was between Chang’e and her archer, but all versions of the story concur that in the end it was she who drank the elixir, thus gaining immortality and floating off to the moon, where she met a jade rabbit that was already living there. She became the goddess of the moon and the white rabbit became the pharmacist in charge of making the elixir of immortality.

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Rabbits in the clouds, China, 16th–17th centuries [1]

Of course, according to Japanese tradition, it is not a magical potion that the jade rabbit mixes up, but ordinary batter for mooncakes, a pretty treat enjoyed during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

At any rate, immortality and the moon are both attributes closely associated with the rabbit in these legends that traveled the Silk Route to new lands.

rabbit in the moon, moon rabbit
Moon rabbit making the elixir of immortality, detail of the dragon mantel of the Chinese emperor, 18th century [4]

Three-hares symbol in the cave of Mogao

Let’s stop for just a while on the Asian continent. Beyond the myths and legends, there is material proof of the rabbit’s significance.

A ceiling painting of three hares or rabbits in the cave of Mogao near Dunhuang in the Chinese province of Gansu shows that the symbol was in circulation at least as early as the sixth century, when this painting is dated.

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Symbol of three joined hares in the Mogao cave, China, sixth century [5]
bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Three joined hares, Persia, 12th century [1]

Unfortunately, as no written records exist, it is unclear exactly what this depiction was meant to represent. We can only conjecture that the motif had its source in a general Oriental perception of the hare as a positive symbol, a bearer of good fortune and prosperity, or as a representation of peace.

In this depiction of the three hares, note the optical illusion that each hare has two ears, although only three are actually shown.

The hare on the Silk Route

The mystical three-hares symbol depicted in the Chinese cave of Mogao seems to have gained enough traction to set off on its own pilgrimage on the Silk Route. It crops up across the whole length of Asia from Turkmenistan to Syria and Egypt.

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Textile fragment with a hare in a medallion, Egypt, ninth century [6]
bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Hares in medallions, cotton, Egypt, 11th century [7]

The hare or rabbit symbol in Asian cultures draws on ancient Buddhist and Taoist legends. It is attributed with supernatural, magical powers and is associated with the moon and lunar cycles and by extension with menstrual cycles.

In this respect, the number 28 gains mystical significance as the number of days in a menstrual cycle, a lunar cycle, and the gestational period of the hare.

The hare thus began to be understood as a symbol of fertility and womanhood.

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Hare in the bush, China, 13th–14th centuries [8]

Three hares, holy trinity, and the Virgin Mary

Traffic along the Silk Route reached its height in the 13th century at the time of the Pax Mongolica, the Mongol peace, when passage was relatively safe and trade between East and West was flourishing.

Heightened aesthetics and luxury goods from the Far East poured into early Medieval Europe. The rabbit or hare was one of the Eastern symbols that made the journey at that time to hit the European design scene.

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Early depiction of the hare in Medieval Europe, wooden box, 13th century [1]

Medieval Christians, noting the excellent reproductive abilities of the hare, actually believed it to be a hermaphrodite with no need for a mate. It’s no surprise that the hare was associated with the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary and was often pictured at her side. 

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Hares in medallions, Italy or Persia, 14th century [3]

It is interesting how wholeheartedly Medieval Europe seems to have embraced the three-hares symbol that arrived along the Silk Route. Perhaps it just served so nicely as a symbol of the holy trinity.

In Germany the symbol of the three hares can be found in church interiors and even pops up in some town seals. Many churches in England and France also feature reliefs of the three joined hares.

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Three hares, cathedral in Paderborn, Germany [9]
bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Grave marker with three hares, Jewish cemetery, Ukraine [10]

It is worth noting that in the high Middle Ages rabbits were often depicted quite outside of any symbolic context, for example in hunting scenes on textiles where the rabbit simply represents agility and speed and, thus, a challenge for its hunter.

The symbol of the three hares occasionally appeared later in synagogues and on Jewish gravestones from Ukraine to Germany. In Judaism, the symbol of the hares in a ring was most likely seen as a representation of eternity.

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Huntress with rabbits, cloth of gold, Sicily, 12th century [11]
bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
Woman hunting rabbits, Persia, 11th–12th century [11]

The rabbit as a bloodthirsty beastie

A bit of Medieval humor

You may be surprised to learn there’s more to Monty Python’s fearsome “Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog” than you may think (for the uninitiated, see the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail). This bloodthirsty creature with the “nasty, big, pointy teeth” can actually claim some cultural cred in the Middle Ages.

If you take the time to really notice the detailing in a Romanesque church, you are sure to agree that, like the Pythons, Medieval artists had a sharp sense of humor with a decided taste for satire.

Many of the richly illuminated Medieval manuscripts were peppered with hidden jokes and double entendre. Known in academic circles as drolleries, these artistically rendered drawings, illuminated initial letters, and other marginalia are full of double meanings and puns.

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
From the book "The Breviary of Renaud de Bar," France, ca 1303 [12]

In the drolleries, we find cute little bunnies engaged in cruel, vengeful, and brutally violent scenes as cold-blooded killers. Elsewhere they make appearances in comic situations doing battle on snailback.

In the real world, of course, the humble rabbit was the hunters’ prey. Medieval artists, however, used illuminated first letters and marginalia to show a topsy-turvy world where roles were reversed and the impossible was possible. So we see rabbits having their way with hunters and pitilessly punishing anyone perceived to have committed crimes against their kind.

bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
bestiary, animals symbols and meanings
From the book “Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma” (a.k.a. The Smithfield Decretals), England, 1300–1340

Image sources: [1] Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, [2] Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, [3] Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, [4] Wikimedia Commons, [5], [6] Brooklyn Museum, New York, [7] Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, [8] Cleveland Museum of Art, [9] Wikipedia, [10], [11] Friedrich Fischbach, Ornamente der Gewebe, [12] Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, British LibraryZdroje: [1] Metropolitní muzeum umění v New Yorku, USA [2] Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, USA, [3] Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, USA, [4] Wikimedia Commons, [5], [6] Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA, [7] Kelsey museum of archaeology, USA, [8] The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA, [9] Wikipedia, [10], [11] Friedrich Fischbach, Ornamente der Gewebe, [12] Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library


Teunissen Martine 22 / 7 / 2023

Great article that shows the love and research that goes into reproducing historical fabrics! Keep up the great work! - Martine Teunissen - Experience The Past - Netherlands

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31 / 7 / 2023

Reaction to: Great article that shows the love and research that goes into reproducing historical fabrics! Keep up the great work! - Martine Teunissen - Experience The Past - Netherlands

Thank you! :)

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