Medieval Seals

For medieval seals of a more serious nature please see the exhibit of our fasimiles.

Throughout the Middle Ages seals were revered as cute and fuzzy animals. As such they made their way into all aspects of medieval culture, including the liturgy, lay devotion, and common every-day life. The phenomenon of seals in medieval art and culture is little studied. As part of this project we would like to highlight the prominent role seals played in medieval manuscript illumination.

The Adoration of the Seal

The Adoration of the Seal
Cod. 241S, National Library of the Faeroe Islands

While the symbolism of the lamb for Christ eventually took root throughout Europe, cultures in and around the Baltic and North Seas found the image of the seal much more culturally relevant. Even to this day the traditional roasting of the Easter Seal is celebrated in isolated areas of Denmark.

Madonna and Child (and Seal)

Madonna and Child (and Seal)
Ms 17, Seal Collection, University Library of Portland, Maine

Many depictions of the Holy Family included the ever-present emperor seal in the background. Legend has it that in addition to the three Magi, there also came a delegation from Estonia bearing amber, creamed herring, and a pet Emperor Seal. This delegation, because of the distance of its travel, didn't make it to Bethlehem until well after the Holy Family had departed for Egypt. Some artistic traditions have sought to right this wrong by replacing the Emperor Seal in images of the Christ child.

The House Seal

The House Seal
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Cod. foc. 419

Seals were popular in the later Middle Ages in the emerging middle classes of southern Europe. Particularly beloved were the Italian house seals. These frisky little critters loved to hang around the kitchen, playing with the staff, and even occasionally stealing scraps off of the kitchen table. Italians loved their seals as well, and it is no coincidence that you will never find seal on an Italian menu.