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Christ Church Cathedral in 25 Objects: 14th Century Monkeys

Written by Robin Gibbons, posted on Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Almost hidden from view, but visible once you know where to look, are two little monkeys in the 14th C stained glass in what we all the Latin Chapel. They are one of my favorite images in the Cathedral, part of a whole host of other animal and odd grotesque figures carved into the stonework or found in our medieval stained glass.

MonkeyWhat are they and why are they there? You will find them in the margins of the stained glass, playing in the wonderful patterns of flowers and foliage we see there. Our two monkeys face each other across the glass, mirror images of each other, I like to think of them as members of the same family, for they look very alike. You might wonder why are ‘non-religious figures’ appearing in windows that surround the walls of a chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine and where Saint Frideswide’s Shrine was kept, one of the specifically holy places of the Priory Church? 

The answer isn’t too difficult to find. In the 14th Century there was a flowering of animal and grotesques in art. In the borders of manuscripts and also in the borders of stained glass windows, there appeared mythical beings, birds or animals, like our monkeys. These were not idle doodles of a humorous artist, nor were they just to fill in odd spaces, there were specific reasons for them, to help make comparisons or connections. Our monkeys they have a purpose in what we can call a stained glass book of sacred meanings. They are a slice of animal life parodying us. Have a careful look at some of our other medieval windows in the Latin chapel, you will find more of these marginal figures, including a beautiful brown squirrel eating an acorn. There are more in the ‘Becket’ window in the South Transept.

Monkeys or ‘apes’ were understood as imitators of human beings. The famous bishop St Isidore of Seville (c.560–636), had an explanation that helps us see why, for he said that the Latin word for monkey, simius, is derived from similitudo, meaning resemblance or likeness. Why?  Because monkeys mimic what they see, often copying human behaviour. Medieval bestiaries carried on this theme suggesting that apes were so called, because they ‘ape’ our behaviour. So our little monkeys come from a long tradition of spiritual parody and satire on the folly and foolishness of their nearest relative, homo sapiens, us! By making us look ridiculous, they bring us back to earth if we get too proud or self important! Good spiritual guides suggest this is necessary for anybody taking their life of Christian faith seriously, to get rid of pride and become truly humble in order to be like Christ. Our two monkeys are a visual reminder not to take ourselves too seriously, to have a sense of perspective and humour about religious matters! 

But what are they doing? If you follow the pattern they are in upwards, our little yellowish-brown figures are definitely climbing, both wear leather belts with metal patterns, so perhaps they are pets or perhaps performing animals, both climb a strong vine, looking upwards to the bunches of grapes overhead , their big wide eyes fixed on their prize, their hands and legs gripping the vine tightly! In other pictures of monkeys, such as those in York Minister and in many Manuscripts, their juxtaposition to other images and the way they are dressed often make a point, by poking fun at us they point to the real message.

Bottom of windowSo what of our two? They are extremely handsome examples of 14th c glaziers art, their fur carefully picked out, delicate hands, very like ours done with creative care, big eyes and slightly opened mouth gaze at their prize, the fruit of the vine! There is something moving about these little creatures, almost hidden at the bottom of the glass panels. They are with Saint Catherine of Alexandria’s panel, a martyr shown holding her Catherine wheel! If they are near her, what might they be saying?

We can only guess, perhaps to point out that there is an obvious meaning. The chains attached to their belts are gone, freed from captivity they can now seek the fruits of their life’s journey, much as the martyr Catherine did in shedding her life blood for others. There is another tentative link, we use consecrated wine for communion, made holy by special blessing prayers, Christians refer to drink as the ‘blood’ of Christ. Here is another way of looking at them, our monkeys represent Christ setting us free from any kind of oppression and slavery to share in his fruitful life, symbolized by Holy Communion. They may be small, but for me these little apes mean so much! Enjoy them! 



Robin Gibbons is a chaplain for the Eastern Catholic Community of Melkites in the UK. He was a Benedictine Monk, artist and University Academic specialising in Liturgy and the Arts, latterly Director of Studies for Theology & RS at the Continuing Education Department Oxford. He is our Catholic Honorary Ecumenical Canon at the Cathedral.