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Heritage and identity (56). The eagle in Navarre (I) Royal sign, in the heraldry and in the Tetramorphos


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Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Director from the Chair de Patrimonio

The queen of birds, able to soar above the clouds and stare at the sun, was associated in antiquity with the omnipotent Jupiter, god of the sky and the atmosphere, protector of mankind and knower of the future. Together with lightning, its attribute par excellence is the eagle(flamiger ales: bird that carries fire). Several classical authors allude that Jupiter, at the moment of waging war against the Titans, saw an eagle flying towards him, in a favorable omen. Victorious, he placed this bird of good omen in his custody. Virgil calls the eagle of Jupiter Iovis armiger, bearer of his weapon, that is, his thunderbolt(Aeneid V, 255). Horace is even more explicit, and designates it as ministrum flaminis alitem, the winged one in charge of the thunderbolt(Odes, lib. IV, v. 1). Because of its ability to contemplate the sun and its approach to it, it enjoyed the fame of solar animal par excellence. 

In addition, it is a symbol of empire, virility, rejuvenation, virtue, hope, for being a bird of positive omen; of generosity, for leaving part of its prey for other animals; of sight in the allegorical representation of the five senses; of the victory of good over evil (fight against the snake) and of health over disease. Also, it is related to the promptness and elevation of his thought, because according to Aristotle "flies in the heights the air to have a broader vision, unique among the birds is considered similar to the gods", with the victory of good over evil (fight against the snake) and health over disease.

In many religions it symbolizes divinity by its power. St. Dionysius the Areopagite says that it embodies royalty by its agility, swiftness, soaring flight, and ingenuity in discovering the best foods, as well as by its gaze directed directly at the rays of the sun, without any harm being done to it.

Sign of Sancho the Strong and in heraldry

In the 12th century, before the heraldic system triumphed, the monarchs of Pamplona, like their contemporaries, were using documentary subscription signs, in order to verify their authenticity. These were personal signs that, in no case, represented the kingdom. Thus, we know that Sancho el Mayor and his descendants used different variants in the form of a cross. The reign of García Ramírez the Restorer (1134-1150), coincided with a time of diffusion of heraldic emblems in Spain. As is known, that king was married to Margarita l'Aigle (the Eagle), whose family had begun to use the eagle as a sign transmissible to the heirs, from agreement with the uses of the nascent heraldic system. The son of both, Sancho VI the Wise still resorted to the traditional cruciform design as his sign staff, but, the son of the latter and grandson of García and Margarita, Sancho VII the Strong, preferred to sign his documents with an eagle with wings and claws spread out, which had been used by his grandmother. The eagle of Sancho el Fuerte can be found, in an outstanding example, on a core topic of the monastery of La Oliva, in a clear allusion to the king's sponsorship on the works of the abbey temple. 

The black eagle, spread over the entire field, appears in numerous heraldic coats of arms of towns in Navarre, such as Aguilar de Codés, Bacaicoa, Ciordia, Ezcabarte, Iturmendi, Olazagutía, Urdiain and Villafranca. It is a motif that also appears in the barracks of Alsasua, Araiz, Eslava, Ezcabarte, Gallipienzo, Lanz and Valtierra. The municipal emblem of Corella is conformed with an eagle in attitude of catching a running rabbit, something that Faustino Menéndez Pidal put in possible relation with the family of Count Rotrou and the mentioned Margarita, cousin of Alfonso the Battler and wife of García Ramírez. In the Book of Armory of the Kingdom of Navarre it appears in the whole field of the coat of arms or in one of its quarters and with different colors, as the coat of arms of the lords of Cascante and Aguilar in 1275, Domezain, Ezcurra, Ijurieta, Sarasa... etc.

In relation to heraldry, we cannot forget, in more modern times, the presence of the double eagle in coats of arms of the Hispanic monarchy, in different places of Navarre such as the royal palace of Pamplona -today file General of Navarre-, or in the wall of Viana. As is well known, the double-headed eagle became the emblem of the Habsburgs from the 16th century, signifying the union of the Hispanic monarchy and the empire.

Very present in medieval art

Medieval texts insisted on some of the aspects we have mentioned above. Both in the bestiaries and in the literature of the same period, it enjoyed great prestige. Thus, The Physiologist, very popular for its moralizing purpose, includes several legends about the bird: as it grows old, it cures and renews its foggy eyes and tired wings by flying towards the sun and dipping three times in a source. The same literary source refers to the sharpness of his eyesight and the renewal of his beak, which he breaks against a stone when he could not eat. 

The interpretation of their representations in Navarre's medieval heritage, as in Europe, is still controversial, as there has been much debate about whether to grant them a symbolic content or to consider them as decorative and formal motifs. The programs of study of reference letter show that the eagle, as well as other animals and profane iconographies had, in the medieval context, a clear religious and didactic content, since, in the mentality of the time, in its spirit and beliefs, there was an equivalence and conjunction between the sacred and the profane. Lucas de Tuy wrote around 1230, in relation to the images of animals in sacred places, that on some occasions they were placed to "teach doctrine and also for ornamentation". Interpreted in their context, the eagles can make reference letter to the baptism, the Ascension and the Resurrection of Christ.

The presence of eagles in the capitals of cloisters and doorways is abundant and, if we take into account that both spaces were, par excellence, the main ones for the exhibition of iconographic programs. The examples of Cataláin, Santa María de Sangüesa, Aibar, Irache, Aguilar de Codés and Santa María del Campo de Navascués belong to Romanesque art, generally with their wings spread, sometimes escorting a biblical character, fighting with wild beasts or capturing a smaller bird in their talons. In the portico of the parish of Gazólaz they are also represented. A beautiful capital from Artáiz shows two fierce fighters with eagles pecking at their heads. In the cloister of the cathedral of Tudela we find a topic with great future in later times: some voracious eagles catching some rabbits. In the doorway of San Pedro de Olite the topic is repeated in singular, on both sides.

Particularly interesting, during the Gothic period, are various representations of the bird in the capture of the rabbit, which we find, among other examples, in the cathedral of Pamplona (cloister, temple and refectory), San Zoilo de Cáseda and the churches of Larumbe, Ichaso, Cizur Mayor and Redín. Hares and rabbits were applied a parallelism with the Christian soul, beset by temptations and sins from which it has to escape to degree program, fleeing from hounds and raptors. For St. Anselm and other authors, the bird would symbolize Christ saving the soul, elevating it to heaven; but for others, following St. Gregory and his anathematization of the eagle, it would be the same demon raptor of the souls of the weak and vacillating. At the time of concluding on its iconographic reading, it is necessary to carefully analyze the context of its presence, without discarding that it is, in some cases, a decorative motif. E. Martínez de Lagos has studied the topic of the eagle with its prey in the monumental sculpture of Alava, according to its repeated presence in sacred environments, pointing out its precedents in Eastern and Hispano-Muslim art, recalling, among other examples, the predatory eagle of the chest of Leire.

Symbol and attribute of St. John the Evangelist

In the Christian tradition, already linked to the Old Testament by a vision of the prophet Ezekiel, we must place the animalistic symbols of the Tetramorphos, which St. Irenaeus finally applied to the four evangelists, making a staff interpretation of chapter IV of the Book of Revelation. The four are presented in human or angel form (Matthew), bull (Luke), lion (Mark) and eagle (John). In this last case the association would be justified by representing the highest and deepest of Christ's thought, since its text does not form part of the synoptic gospels.

The Tetramorphos appears in such outstanding portals of the second half of the 12th century, together with the Maiestas Domini. Thus, we must mention the examples of San Nicolás and Magdalena de Tudela, San Miguel de Estella and Santa María de Sangüesa. Particularly interesting because of its size and typology is the angelomorphic Tetramorph, much more common in painting than in monumental sculpture, inside the monastery of Irache. Its figures have a winged human body and a head corresponding to the three animals; that of San Marcos is human in its entirety. The enamel frontal of Aralar, from the end of the 12th century, is presided over by the seated figure of the Virgin and Child, inscribed in an almond-shaped mandorla, which in turn is framed in another lobed one, in whose corners the Tetramorphos is placed. The Gothic paintings of the chapel of the Virgin of the Campanal in San Pedro de Olite also present the same outline of Maiestas and Tetramorphos. 

The eagle that accompanies Saint John has outstanding examples in Navarre. Ordinarily, it is usually represented on a smaller scale in relation to the figure of the evangelist, so as not to take away his prominence. Among the most outstanding eagles for their size and verism, in Renaissance and Baroque periods, we will mention those of the main altarpieces of San Juan de Estella (Pierres Picart, 1563), Fitero (Rolan Mois, 1590) and a seiscentist painting of Marcilla. Because of its position, supporting the book with the cup of poison, we mention the sculpture of the main altarpiece of the Dominicans of Pamplona, work of Friar Juan de Beaubes (1570-1574). On some occasions, he holds the inkwell with his beak. Because of its exceptionality and because it recalls the very abduction of Ganymede by Jupiter, we will highlight a Romanist sculpture, from the end of the 16th century, from the cathedral of Tudela, where the saint has an eagle between his legs, as if he were going to be transported into the air by the powerful bird.

Otherwise, the presence of St. John the Evangelist with the other three can be found in pendentives, altarpieces and decorative paintings in numerous temples. Standing, seated, half or full-length and even lying down, in the Romanesque altarpieces his images and reliefs are countless throughout the whole of Navarre.

Very beautiful examples of the San Juan eagle appear in the processional crosses of the 16th century, such as those of San Miguel de Estella, Zábal, Isaba, Alcoz, Baraibar or Zubieta.