Friday, July 30, 2010

Agnus Dei Artifact Found on Banks of Bayou Teche

As a professional historian and curator, I'm often asked to examine artifacts that people find in their closets, attics, backyards, and elsewhere.

Here I show one of these objets trouvĂ©s (that's a fancy French phrase for "found objects"). My neighbor uncovered it in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana — known in "the old days" as Pont Breaux — in the mud along Bayou Teche.

Agnus Dei object found on banks of Bayou Teche.

It's a metal object measuring 3/8 x 1 15/16 x 2.25 inches (5 x 49 x 56 mm) and apparently made of pewter or lead. While it looks old, I cannot be sure of its age. If I had to guess, I would say it's from the period circa 1750 to 1900. I assign a starting date of 1750 because it was around that time that the first Europeans came to the area.

And they came via the Teche, which early explorers used to travel deep into the semitropical south Louisiana frontier. For the next two hundred years residents of Attakapas (south-central Louisiana) used the Teche as a primary means of transportation, rowing and then steaming along its 130-mile path until railroads and highways all but killed off commercial river traffic. Today the Teche is used mainly by pleasure boaters, but occasionally tugboats still push barges laden with limestone or who-knows-what up the twisting waterway.

For comparison, another Agnus Dei with aureole.
Back to the object: It is obviously religious in nature and probably Roman Catholic in origin. I say this because the region's inhabitants were almost wholly of this faith, at least until recent decades. In fact, the object represents a common motif in Roman Catholic iconography: the Agnus Dei, Latin for "Lamb of God." (Agnus Dei is pronounced AG-NOOS DAY or AG-NOOS DAY-EYE, though the former seems preferable.)

The lamb symbol was associated very early with Jesus. As written in John 1:20-34, "John saw Jesus coming to him and he saith: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sins of the world."

This reference is preserved in the modern Roman Catholic liturgy when priests say:

"Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us."

Which in the old Latin liturgy would have been:

"Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis."

Another Agnus Dei example.
As seen in the photo at top, the artifact shows the lamb lying on a rectangular object and surrounded by a sunburst.

In Roman Catholic iconography the sunburst is called an aureole.

The rectangular object on the artifact symbolizes a book, specifically the Book of Seven Seals, which in Revelation was opened by a lamb. "And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals," it states, "and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see."

The Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

"Throughout the Apocalypse the portraiture of Jesus is that of the lamb. Through the shedding of its blood it has opened the book with seven seals and has triumphed over Satan."

Yet another Agnus Dei image.
The Catholic Encyclopedia identifies another Biblical figure associated with the symbol of the lamb:

"The Agnus Dei also appears in portraitures of St. John the Baptist, represented as lying upon a book held in his hand, or in an aureole. . . ."

Note the other examples of the Agnus Dei shown here.  As you can see, they closely resemble the image on the artifact found in Breaux Bridge.

So this is what we have: A symbol of Jesus that is also associated with St. John the Baptist — namely, a classic rendition of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, complete with aureole and the Book of the Seven Seals. (It does not have, however, the banner or flag often but not always shown in other depictions of the Agnus Dei.)

Religious symbolism aside, the purpose of the artifact in question remains a mystery: The back is flat and undecorated, suggesting the artifact was affixed to some other object, such as a Bible or piece of furniture. Whatever its origins, this objet trouvĂ© seems to reflect the strong Roman Catholic tradition of south Louisiana, a tradition brought to the region by Acadian, French, and Spanish settlers, among others, who first moved up the Teche some two hundred fifty years ago.