31 May 2012


I had never given any thought to the design of weather vanes until encountering this passage while reading my June issue of Smithsonian magazine:
The rooster plays a small but crucial role in the Gospels in helping to fulfill the prophecy that Peter would deny Jesus “before the cock crows.” (In the ninth century, Pope Nicholas I decreed that a figure of a rooster should be placed atop every church as a reminder of the incident—which is why many churches still have cockerel-shaped weather vanes.)
From the Wikipedia entry I found that the word 'vane' comes from the Anglo-Saxon word 'fane' meaning 'flag', which fits in nicely with this observation from an article about the history of weather vanes:
In Britain, Germany, and Normandy lords and noblemen flew banners and flags from castle towers. These flags were not intended to predict the weather, but actually helped archers calculate the direction of the wind when defending the castle. Through the years, the cloth flags were replaced by metal structures. 
So that explains why images of castles often show the battlements festooned with flags; I always thought they were just decorative.  You learn something every day.

Here's a segment of the Bayeaux tapestry which depicts a man installing a weather vane (with a cock) on Westminster Abbey, as the corpse of the king is being carried in:

Now back to the Smithsonian article, which focuses on the history of the chicken rather than the history of weather vanes.  It's full of interesting information, including this thought-provoking observation:
Matthew 23:37 contains a passage in which Jesus likens his care for the people of Jerusalem to a hen caring for her brood. This image, had it caught on, could have completely changed the course of Christian iconography, which has been dominated instead by depictions of the Good Shepherd.
Here's the passage (King James Version):
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
It makes me wonder how my old church - the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church - might otherwise have been named...

Photo ("on the tower of the protestant Church of St.Moritz") from an excellent collection of pix of weather vanes at Dyxum Photographs.


  1. The weathercock on a spire always faces the wind.
    A rooster on a post will also face the wind, to avoid ruffling its feathers.
    Hence every villager will intuitively know the wind direction.

    1. Of course, a Bob Dylan fan might say you don't need a weathercock to know which way the wind blows...

  2. In, Riga, Latvia we have many churches with roosters. The highest one St. Peters church (123,25m / 404 ft http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Peter%27s_Church,_Riga http://www.vietas.lv/objekts/sv_petera_baznica/bilde/875 ). In times of ships with sails, its rooster used to have one side black and one side golden. When the wind was from direction that ships could enter the harbou the rooster was facing the city with golden side, when there was "bad" wind and hence no good trade could be made, it faced city with black side.

    I suppose many harbour cities could have had similar purpouse for roosters/vanes - the wind direction was very important at that time, and in city where drafts are blowing around every corner - the placement of vane well above rooftops was essential.

  3. I wonder if the preference for the Good Shepherd (male) analogy over the hen (female) analogy is connected to the purge of feminist ideas from the early Christian church as seen in sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    Here's an article that gives other references to that early feminism:

  4. At some retreat or another, we had an interesting discussion about what Communion would be like, if the feast it was based on was that of the loaves and fishes at the Sermon on the Mount, rather than the wine and bread of the Last Supper...


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