In the magnificent Romanesque cathedral of the little Apulian town of Troy, my interest was attracted, above all, by a somewhat enigmatic relief of the year 1158 that adorned the chancel. This relief shows three animals in whose hostile relationship the artist clearly intended to depict the condition of the Church of his time. At the bottom of the group is a lamb that has been pounced upon by a greedy lion who holds it fast with his powerful claws and teeth. The lamb’s body has already been mangled. The bones are plainly visible and one sees the parts of the body have already been devoured. Only the infinitely sad expression on the animal’s face tells the viewer that the half-consumed lamb is still lalive.
In contrast to the powerlessness of the lamb, the lion is the expression of a brutal power to which the lamb has nothing to oppose but its helpless fear. It is clear that the lamb symbolizes the Church, or better, the faith of and in the Church. What we see in this sculpture is a kind of “Report on the State of the Faith” that seems to be deeply pessimistic. The true Church, the Church of faith, seems to have been already half-devoured by the powerful lion in whose claws she is held captive. She has no choice but to suffer her fate in defenseless woe.
But this sculpture, which depicts with fitting realism the, humanly speaking, hopelessness of the Church’s plight, is likewise the expression of a hope that is convinced of the invincibility of the Faith. This hope is reflected in a remarkable way. A third animal, a small white dog, leaps upon the lion. Its strength seems totally disproportionate to that of the lion; nevertheless it attacks the lion with teeth and paws. It may itself still fall victim to the lion, but its intervention causes the lion to lose its grip on the lamb. While the symbolism of the lamb is relatively clear, this is not so of the other two animals.
What does the lion symbolize? What does the little white dog symbolize? I have not been able to consult a history of art to find an answer to this question, nor do I know it. But another question must also be answered. What does the dramatic struggle of these three animals have to do with theology? The more I think of it, the more it seems to me that the sculpture is not making a theological statement, but is rather a challende, an examination of conscience, a deliberately open question.
Only the lamb is clearly defined. But the other two animals, the lion and the dog-do they not stand for the two divergent orientations of theology, for its contradictory goals? The lion-does it not embody the historical attemp of theology to dominate faith? Does it not embody that violentia rationis -that despotic and brutal reason that Bonaventure would castigate a century later as a distortion of theological thinking? And the courageous little dog-surely it smbolizes the opposite way, a theology that knows it is at the service of the Faith and is therefore prepared to make itself laughable by criticizing the want of moferation and authoritarianism of reason alone. But if this is so, what a pointed question the relief in the chancel of Troy poses to the preacher and the theologian of all ages! It holds a mirror up to those who speak and to those who hear. It is an examination of conscience for pastors and for theologians alike, for either of these can prey upon the Church or be a shepherd to her. it follows, then, that this sculpture, as a never-to-be-answered question, can apply to all of us.
From: Internationale katholische Zeitschrift Communio 15 (1986), pp 532-33