The exterior of Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork is a wonderful, if slightly deranged, bestiary of the weird and grotesque and I would recommend having a good pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens to hand in order to truly appreciate the finer detail of the sculptures.
One series of images on the upper reaches caught my eye the last time I visited. Carved onto corbels at each of the four corners of the main tower, it shows a sequence of bloodthirsty monsters menacing some Roman-style temples and basilicas. I had an vague intuition that the images were referring to the ‘Four Beasts’ from the apocalyptic vision of Daniel in chapter 7 of the eponymous Old Testament book. A quick Google on my phone proved the hunch to be correct.
I quote from the KJV:
Daniel 7: 3-8
(3) And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another.
(4) The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it.
(5) And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh.
(6) After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it.
(7) After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns.
(8) I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots: and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things.
So 10 horns, minus 3 ‘plucked up by the roots’, plus one ‘little horn’ = 8. It might seem like there are only 7 horns on the sculpture, but if you look closely, there is one half-hidden behind the others – so full marks to William Burges for Biblical accuracy.
The last photo was taken at the very limit of my telephoto, but if you digitally zoom in you can just about make out the bizarre ‘horn with a head’ that verse 8 is referring to.
So what about the palaeontological mystery? An avid dinosaur fan as a kid, I had most of the Cretaceous-period fauna off by heart, so when I saw the image of the Fourth Beast, I immediately went “Ah! A Styracosaurus!”.
The problem is that according to Wikipedia, Styracosaurus was first identified in 1913 and the more familiar Triceratops in 1887. Even though tinkering with St. Fin Barre’s exterior carried on well into the 20th century, the designs for Burges’s sculptures must date at the latest to 1881. So do we have a spooky case of precognition or is the Fourth Beast just a bog-standard Rhino to which Burges has added some supernumerary horns? You decide.