Miraculous Birds

Rudolf Wittkower offers the following English translation of the Bird and Serpent text which accompanies many copies of the Great Stemma. It seems worth bringing it online in a searchable, copiable format:
It is maintained that there is a bird in a country of the Orient which, armed with a large and very sharp beak, provokes the snake which he wants to fight with audacious hissing. He covers himself purposely with dirt and also covers the pearls of different colours with which nature has lavishly adorned him. Having thus given himself an insignificant appearance he surprises the enemy by this unfamiliar impression and deceives him, so to speak, by the security which the latter feels in front of his shabby appearance. Holding his tail as a shield in the manner of a warrior before his face, he boldly attacks the head of his furious adversary, pierces the brain of the surprised beast with the unexpected weapon of his beak and thus kills his monstrous enemy by his marvellous intelligence.
Christ girded himself with human weakness and enveloped himself with the dirt of our flesh to fight in the shape of man for the benefit of salvation and to deceive the godless deceiver with pious fraud, and he concealed his former shape with the latter, throwing, as it were, the tail of his humanity before the face of divinity, and extinguished as if with a strong beak the poisonous malice of the old murderer of men through the word of his mouth. Therefore the Apostle says: Through the word of his mouth he will kill the wicked.
From: Rudolph Wittkower. 'Miraculous Birds.' Journal of the Warburg Institute (1938), Volume 1, Issue 3, pages 253-257. DOI: 10.2307/750013 http://www.jstor.org/stable/750013. Wittkower probably intended the last phrase to be "the sword of his mouth," but this has been spoiled by an officious proof-reader. The biblical text referred to is Revelation 2:16.

The text has a French translation in: Bord, Lucien-Jean, and Piotr Skubiszewski. L’image de Babylone aux serpents dans les Beatus: Contribution à l’étude des influences du Proche-Orient antique dans l’art du haut Moyen Age. Paris: Cariscript, 2000.

Wittkower and Neuss located the image in five Beatus manuscripts: three of them alongside Alpha recensions of the Great Stemma (Gerona, Turin, Manchester). The others were Urgell (Gamma) and Saint-Sever (Sigma). The image, without the text, is also found near a Great Stemma, in a biblical Delta manuscript, the San Millàn Bible, spread across two pages.

The Rylands version of the image in Manchester is online. Moleiro has a watermarked version of the Gerona image online. The French website Encylopedie Universelle reproduces a detail of the same (about 975, folio 18v). It also has a relatively large image from the Saint-Sever Beatus (about 1060, folio 13). Turin and Urgell are not imaged online as far as I know.

The Latin, as transcribed by Wilhelm Neuss, is as follows:
Quedam esse avis in regione orietentalis asseritur, quae grandi et perduro armatoque rostro contra draconem quem audacibus lacessit sibilis pugnaturam coenum de industria expetit, e cuius volutabro teiro habitu infecta sordescit et diversorum gernmas colorum quibus eam indulgentiam natura depinxit. Et humili despecta vestitu ita hostem novitate deterreat et quasi vilitatis suae securitate decipiat. Caudam velut scutum ante faciem suam quadam arte bellatoris opponit audaci impetu in capud adversarii furentis adsurgit, improviso oris sui telo stupentis bestiae cerebrum fodit, et sic mirae calliditatis ingenio immanem prosternit inimicum.
Informa hominis pugnaturus ad militiam salutis publicae humana se infirmitate praecinxit ac luto se nostrae carnis involvit ut impium deceptorem pia fraude deciperet, et postremis priora celavit ac velut caudam humanitatis ante faciem divinitatis objecit, et tamquam rostro fortissimo venenatam veteris homicidae malitiam verbo sui oris extinxit. Unde et apostolus dicit: verbo oris sui interficiet impium.


  1. I know you wrote this posting months and months ago, but "verbo oris sui" is "with the word of His mouth". If you do a search on "verbo oris", you'll find quite a few occurrences of this phrase, such as that God made the heavens "with the word of His mouth"; or St. Thomas Aquinas juxtaposing the mouth's word with the heart's word. It's in the Bible: (Jer. 9:12, Jer. 9:20, Sirach 39:22.)

    "With the sword of His mouth" would be something like "gladio oris".

  2. Thank you, Maureen. You are quite right, and I am scoring out the error. It goes to show that one should triple-check these things before publishing.