Porcupines

OK, here’s the test. What is the significance of this image of a porcupine, found on the western facade of the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Amiens? (I took this picture a little more than a week ago.)

I have to admit, I was charmed by the image but I couldn’t place it at all. And usually I’m pretty good at religious iconography! My guidebooks did not come to my aid. It took — get this — a visit to “Hedgehog Central” to find the following explanation:

The significance of this unusual bas-relief on the walls of the Cathedral at Amiens in North France is most interesting as it is a graphical interpretation of a passage taken from the Bible at Zephaniah 2:14 where the destruction of the great city of Nineveh is prophesized with startling accuracy.

While the King James version renders this verse as:
“And flocks shall lie down in the midst of her, all the beasts of the nations: both the cormorant and the bittern shall lodge in the upper lintels of it; their voice shall sing in the windows; desolation shall be in the thresholds; for he shall uncover the cedar work”

…the Septuagint, Vulgate, New American Standard Bible translations render it as:
Flocks will lie down in her midst, All beasts which range in herds; Both the pelican and the hedgehog Will lodge in the tops of her pillars; Birds will sing in the window, Desolation {will be} on the threshold; For He has laid bare the cedar work.

…and the New World Translations renders it as:
And in the midst of her, droves will certainly lie stretched out, all the wild animals of a nation. Both pelican and porcupine will spend the night right among her pillar capitals. A voice will keep singing in the window. There will be devastation at the threshold; for he will certainly lay bare the very wainscoting.

Bible scholars render the two words, “the cormorant and the bittern ” as “the pelican and the porcupine.” The [taq], “pelican,” comes from [haq], to vomit, because it casts up fish or water from its membranaceous bag; and, “porcupine,” is from the verb, which means to cut off as by a bite, or rather, from its Syriac meaning, to dread, for it is a solitary animal.  Some scholars, however, contends that it is the hedgehog, and both the Septuagint and Vulgate render it as such. This is generally accepted in most modern Bible translations and fits given that the original Hebrew word, “qip·podh'” is very similar in etymology to the modern Hebrew word “Kipod” for hedgehog.

In this bas-relief, there is a hedgehog below and a bird above (a pelican, [or, possibly, a cormorant] although poorly rendered as though by someone who has not seen one but is merely interpreting a description given) while in the window there is a singing bird in what appears to be a cage.

Is this accurate? Calling all scripture scholars and art historians to either confirm or deny the accuracy of this report!

In my admittedly rather unsystematic search, I also discovered that the NRSV refers to a hedgehog in Isaiah 34:11, although the designation of the animal is uncertain. But the architectural motifs in the image above argue for Zephaniah rather than Isaiah as the inspiration.

Share:

8 comments

  1. I saw this here

    “[…] The hedgehog has an honoured place in the medieval Bestiary, as caring devotedly for its young: it was thought to knock grapes off the vine, then to roll in them so that it speared several grapes on its spines, which it would thus take home to feed its offspring. But Nineveh is ‘dry like a wilderness‘; there are no grapes here.

    In fact, the hedgehog in the sculpture is the result of mistranslation. The meaning of the original Hebrew words for the beasts in the ruined city remains obscure, though recent scholarship accords with the translators of King James’ Bible in taking them for birds, perhaps owls. The Vulgate Bible, the Bible in use in the middle ages, however, specifies the beasts of all the nations thus:

    ‘et onocrotalus et ericius in liminibus eius morabuntur; vox cantantis in fenestra, corvus in superliminari.’ ………”

    1. “‘et onocrotalus et ericius in liminibus eius morabuntur; vox cantantis in fenestra, corvus in superliminari.’ ………”

      Et vox clara in vastitate.

  2. The site you found is great, Crystal! Thanks! “Eye-catching” indeed.

    When people are confronted by the word for an animal they don’t know, an obscure word, what can they do but offer their best guess? I give them credit for trying. After all, we don’t know it’s an owl either… I wonder if the case is the same for the passage in Isaiah.

  3. Actually, many art historians believe that the sculpters at Amiens actually intended to carve a bas relief of an Old World porcupine in the 1298 plans for the Cathedral — or at least that was the intention stated in the surviving records of ICPI (the International Commission on Porcupines in Iconography). But as luck would have it, about ten years later, unknown persons (possibly linked to a faction known only as Imagio Rodentia) (sic) replaced the porcupine with the hedgehog.

    1. OK, Charles, now you’re pulling our leg! Everyone knows that Amiens was built between 1220 and 1240. 🙂

      Combing the surviving records of the ICPI however is not any more implausible than the story about the grapes, I’ll admit. 😉

      Now I’m looking forward to seeing some of your own drawings of the subject in question!

    1. Thanks for pointing this out, Paul. I saw they were doing something, but I hadn’t seen the plans on the website. The remodelling looks beautiful and certainly far surpasses the temporary arrangement. It would be great to go back and see it when it’s all done.

  4. I must apologize to our readers. The image might not be a porcupine after all. Because of this curious inquiry, I’ve learned that a hedgehog is different from a porcupine. (In French, they have different names too: porcupine is porc-epic; hedgehog is hérrison.) I used the terms interchangeably above; that was wrong. The confusion was also embodied in the Biblical translations cited. The porcupine is a rodent; the hedgehog belongs to a different zoological family. By all accounts, porcupines are nastier creatures.

    I’ve looked at a number of scientific drawings and now I am beginning to think that the image on the cathedral is a picture of a hedgehog. Which is not to say that the Zephaniah text is not the inspiration of the stone carving, but merely to sort out which animal is pictured.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *