The Hare Symbol in Christian Iconography
Hares are rarely pictured or commented on before the high Middle Ages, but then they come to represent two contrary representations, one negative and one positive.

NEGATIVE REPRESENTATIONS

In the 13th century a group of five similar bestiaries included this paragraph:
The Hare is called "lepus" as it is "levipes" or light-footed, that is, it runs quickly, and so in Greek it is called "lagos" on account of its speed. It is a swift animal and also timorous. Some affirm that the hare's nature is such that sometimes it is male, and sometimes female. To this animal inconstant people are likened, who being dissolute, as they are neither man nor woman, that is, neither faithful nor treacherous nor cold nor hot, are without doubt those of whom Solomon said: a doubleminded man, unstable in all his ways.1
Hares will sometimes appear in this negative sense in high medieval works. Being timorous and speedy, they run from dogs in the lower margin of a 14th century Swiss gradual and the hunting scene in Pisanello's Vision of St. Eustace, and from a mere bird in Carpaccio's Visitation.

Another negative portrayal is in the Last Judgment tympanum at Conques, where a hare-headed demon is roasting a soul on a spit.

POSITIVE REPRESENTATIONS

The positive view regarding hares arises from commentaries on two verses in the Old Testament. It was believed that these creatures, being too weak to defend themselves, would hide from predators in crevices. Thus they were taken as representing Christians or the Church, which instead of trusting in human strength hides in the rock that is Christ.

One example of this interpretation is in St. Augustine's comment on Psalm 103:18, which in his text read, "the rock is a refuge for hedgehogs and hares." Augustine explains that "the rock was Christ."2

Another example is the interpretation of Proverbs 30:28, which lists four creatures that "are of the least on earth, yet are wiser than the wisest." The second of these wise creatures is the lepusculus, here best understood as the diminutive of lepus, "hare." The lepusculus is called "a weak people" that "makes its lair in the rock." Bede and Jerome say this "weak people" is the Church, which does not trust to her own strength "but has learned to look for safety in the help of her Redeemer."3

With these interpretations in mind, Jerome speaks of Moses as "the Lord's hare" in comments on Exodus 33:22-23, where God tells him, "I will set thee in a hole of the rock, and protect thee with my right hand."4 Dines (82-84) demonstrates that these associations with Moses and the Church explain the inclusion of the hare in images of Adam naming the animals, even when only a limited number of animals are pictured.

Prepared in 2020 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.

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In this Assumption of Mary Magdalene the hare standing by the rock represents the Christian who, like Mary Magdalene, sought her salvation in Christ. The hare is especially apposite in this setting, because the Magdalene herself spent her contemplative years in a rock cave. (See the description page.)


A deer, hare, and rabbit approach the cave where angels minister to Jesus after the temptation in the desert. (See the description page.)

NOTES

1 Dines, 75.

2 Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, III, 418. The name of the sheltering creature changes puzzlingly from one ancient translation to another, as ably explained in Dines, 81-82.

3 For Bede see Super Parabolas Salomonis, III, xxx (Migne, Pat. Lat., XCI, 1026). For Jerome, see Glossa Ordinaria, III, 1736.

4 Jerome, Commentary on Matthew VIII, 1-2.

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