Eagles and the Sun in a Medieval Bestiary

MS 22, f. 166v
Eagles teaching an eaglet to look at the sun. CCCC MS 22, f. 166v

Summer has finally properly arrived in England, and the sun has made a stronger-than-usual appearance in Cambridge. While we humans need to dust off our sunglasses, the eagle, as described by Isidore of Seville in the early 7th century, is capable of staring directly into the sun.

In fact, the eagle tests its young by holding them up to the sun, and if they cannot look right at it, they are cast out of the nest. This brought about the medieval allegorical reading of the eagle’s ability to look directly into the sun as analogous to Christ’s ability to see the full glory of God. Only the most worthy souls can be lifted up by angels and perceive the whole power of God.

This illustration is from CCCC MS 22, a collection of Isidore of Seville’s works, which includes one of the oldest extant copies of an illustrated bestiary made in England. It probably dates from c. 1150-70, and may have been produced in the North of England.

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