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You beast! Animal symbols for human vices


Philip Kosloski - published on 09/22/17

When looking for symbols, artists saw vices come alive in the natural habits of these 5 animals.

In classical and Christian art, animals often stand for or symbolize certain qualities. While many animals, such as the lion, or lamb, are used to represent heavenly realities, artists have also chosen different beasts of the world to embody human qualities — for good or for ill.

It turns out that the natural habits of many creatures became easy metaphors for fallen human nature. Here are five animals that are commonly used in art and symbolism to represent those bad habits we are all tempted to engage in.

Bear – The sometimes ferocious nature of the bear made it a perfect symbol of wrath. Because female bears are often enraged by threats to their cubs, the animal symbol for anger is often a she-bear.

Fox – The fox is cunning and deceitful, an expert at trapping its prey. It was easily attached to the vice of lust, a sin that is extremely tempting and often catches people off guard. The fox’s reddish coat also reflects a common artistic practice of depicting the lustful as having red hair.

Hog – Not surprisingly, the eating habits of a hog or pig being fattened for slaughter make it a perfect symbol for gluttony. Even today, children are repeatedly asked to not eat “like a pig.”

Peacock – While the peacock was an ancient symbol of eternal life, its colorful plumage spread out for all to see also made it a sign of human vanity or pride.

Snail – The snail, well known for its slowness, was naturally a symbol of sloth. Interestingly, during the Renaissance, snails were also included in art of the Annunciation, as a sign of Mary’s virginal conception — at that time, no one knew how the heavily armored snail could reproduce.

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