In almost every French village you’ll find a church. And whether it’s old or new, Romanesque or Gothic, urban or rural, your eyes will be drawn up to the cross at the highest point on the church -- and on top of the cross you’ll see … a rooster?
I asked a French friend why this symbol is so pervasive on French churches. After a little hesitation, he brightened and said “because a rooster is the symbol of France!” Which is true – you’ll also see roosters perched on top of war memorials, town gates, and old coins. But is that why it appears on top of the cross?
Nope! That response didn’t seem right to me, so I dug in a little deeper. It turns out that the symbol is much older than the country of France itself – and (not surprisingly) that there are almost as many interpretations of its meaning as there are steeples in France. [In fact, the oldest known example of a rooster sitting on a cross is in Italy, at the church in Brescia, and it’s at least 1,000 years old.]
Here are some of the possible meanings:
It’s a symbol of the rising sun because this is the bird that announces the dawn. So, “like Christ, it announces the arrival of the day after the night, the arrival of good after bad.”
Roosters are proud, courageous, intelligent and vigilant – the qualities we expect the church to demonstrate in its community.
We use the rooster because early Christians met for morning prayers according to the bird’s crowing, at least until the first bell-towers appeared in the 5th century and took over that function.
The cock on the weather vane always faces into the wind, so it’s a symbol of the way Christ facing into the sins and dangers of the world.
You get the picture. There are many ways to interpret this pervasive symbol. But why is it so universal, so widely present on everything from tiny country churches to big urban cathedrals? Here the record is considerably cloudier. Several of the “historical” sources say that, around 850 A.D., Pope Leon IV ordered the placement of a rooster on the original basilica of St. Peter in Rome, presumably to commemorate Jesus’s prediction addressed to the apostle Peter “Before the rooster crows you will deny Me three times.”
The problem is there’s no historical record of any such order from the Pope and no other credible “first source” for the practice. So in the end, this is one of those great “quarrels among specialists” – source material for thousands of school papers, sermon homilies, and academic discussions over several hundred years.
Hélas, it’s all conjecture. My own guess is that a version focused the rooster as a symbol of Christ “announcing the arrival of the day after the night” is close to the original meaning. But isn’t it the richness of symbols, the way they reverberate with other meanings and personal experiences, that makes them so useful to us over time?
What symbolism have you encountered in the buildings you’ve seen in France – anything that you found particularly odd or interesting? Please tell us about it in the comments section below. And please take a second to share this on Facebook, Twitter, or your preferred social media forum using the buttons below.