Our eagle lectern can be traced back to Fr Head, who kept it in his prayer room on the top floor of the old vicarage. His successor, Christopher Hewetson, rescued it when the vicarage was demolished in the early 1990s and placed it in Holy Trinity, sawing off some inches from the stand so that the head and shoulders of most readers would be visible: originally, lecterns (from the Latin legere, to read) would have been taller, closer to the eyes of the reader and accessible to more than one reader at once. Reading standing up is quite a comfortable position, and there are 12th century illuminations in this country recording monks doing just that.
Where our lectern originally came from is anybody’s guess. It is probably 19th century and may have come from one of the older churches in the centre of Oxford that were being pulled down in the later 1800s. Both bird and stand may be of oak, a close-grained wood that is rewarding to carve. Andy Gosler, our resident ornithology expert, has identified the eagle, broadly speaking, as a golden eagle – though why churches should have chosen a bird more native to Scotland than England on which to rest the holy book is not obvious.
Our bird perches with wings widespread, as though soaring in the heavens, book and all. The neck reaches upwards and the head is raised and alert. Two sets of three massive claws grasp the stand, locked behind by the thumb toe. Most birds who support bibles have wide open wings because that makes it viable to rest a large book on them, though some have wings held high as though about to dive onto their prey. However, not all birds have the character of ours. The beak is open, like a mouth slightly apart when the listener wants to absorb what is being said. Two wakeful eyes peer out, half obscured by the magnificent crest that rises like a quiff on a preening adolescent.
But why do church lecterns so often feature an eagle? Why not, for example, a dove? Doves are a holy birds too and quite capable of spreading their wings. Or a phoenix, the bird of love and self-sacrifice? This takes us back to the symbols adopted for the four evangelists: John and the eagle, Mark and the ox, Luke and the lion, Matthew and the angel. Irenaeus at the end of the second century was among the first recorded church fathers to use these symbols for the apostles, perhaps drawing on classical echoes: the ox of Hebrew and Roman sacrifice; the kingly lion of Hercules; the imperial eagle of Jupiter, king of the gods; and a seraph of Persian origin.
Irenaeus could equally well have been drawing on the Old Testament. The raptor came into Christianity straight from 6th century BC Hebrew scripture: they are sourced in Ezekiel, twice, and there is an echo in Daniel too (7:1-8). For example, Ezekiel 1: 1-14 refers to beings with four faces: the face of a human, the face of a lion, the face of an ox, and the face of an eagle. Christianity’s Revelations (4:5-11) is an exact echo.
That explains the presence of mythical beasts and angels in Christianity. It doesn’t explain how they came to be associated with the writers of the gospels, let alone which sign was assigned to which evangelist – and, hence, why so many lecterns feature an eagle. These four Old Testament symbols had remained like living presences in the thinking of the early church. It was Irenaeus of Lyons who was the first early father to associate them with the four evangelists, though he bracketed John, for example, with the lion and the eagle went to Mark. Augustine of Hippo gave the lion to Matthew. However Jerome, whose Vulgate Latin Bible was used by believers for centuries, established the sequence with which we are all familiar: Mark and the lion, Luke and the ox, Matthew and the angel/human; and John the eagle.
An unsourced quotation doing the rounds on the internet explains all: “Because it soars upward, the eagle is a symbol of the resurrection or ascension of Christ. By extension, the eagle symbolises baptised Christians who have symbolically died and risen with Christ. The eagle represents John because of his lofty and ‘soaring’ gospel.” Another source suggests that the symbolism of the eagle derives from the belief that the bird was capable of staring into the sun and that Christians similarly are able to gaze unflinchingly at the revelation of the divine word. Alternatively, the eagle was believed to be the bird that flew highest in the sky and was therefore closest to heaven, and symbolised the carrying of the word of God to the four corners of the world.
We are almost there. Our lectern is the result of one final influence, and that was when the newly-Protestant King Henry VIII stated that there should be a copy of the bible in every church. Known as the Great Bible, this massive book needed a lectern on which to rest, and what better stand than one resting on an ornate pillar and featuring an eagle? The rest is history.