The weird and wonderful hieroglyphics  

Oxford is full of richly carved gargoyles, grotesques, and various forms of statuary. It seems you can’t look anywhere without spying a dragon leaning over the eaves of a rooftop, or angels holding crests (we’ve got both!).  

Master Craftsman Alex Wenham has spoken extensively about Oxford’s lasting legacy of stone masonry. “The carved detail of Oxford’s stone buildings is, arguably, our city’s most lasting and significant contribution to Britain’s built heritage,” he said. “From the Sheldonian heads to the ‘hieroglyphics’ at Magdalen and the wonders of Queen’s Lane, carved stonework is all around us.”

Whether they’re in human or animal form, they usually hold some sort of allegorical or mythical significance for the college that erected them, and ours are no different. From courageous lions to timid deer, each of our hieroglyphics is said to have significance for members of College, from the President to Freshers. 

The carved detail of Oxford’s stone buildings is our city’s most lasting and significant contribution to Britain’s built heritage

Alex Wenham

Magdalen underwent many renovations between 1480 and 1507. During that time, President Richard Mayhew oversaw the building of the Great Tower and the south side of Cloisters. In 1508/9, once the finishing touches had been added to Cloisters, 22 freestanding grotesques, or ‘hieroglyphics’, were carved by John Buce and Robert Carver and installed on the buttresses along three sides of the quadrangle. 

William Reeks, a Fellow of Magdalen College from 1671-75, wrote about our hieroglyphics in his essay ‘Oedipus Magdalenensis’ and, although his descriptions are purely his own interpretation, they have been considered correct ever since.

The hieroglyphics

The two figures on the archway that opens into Cloisters from the west are angels holding both the crest of Magdalen and the crest of the University of Oxford. They rarely seem to appear in descriptions of Magdalen’s hieroglyphics, so we may assume they were a later addition.    

The lion and the pelican

The lion
The pelican

Beginning in the southwest corner, the first two figures (the lion and the pelican, above) represent the qualities expected of a good College President. They’re positioned underneath the windows of what is now the Senior Common Room, but when they were built, these rooms would have been the President’s Lodgings.  

The lion is said to symbolise courage and vigilance; the addition of vigilance paints the image of a good President as a watchful caretaker of the College and its students. This is reflected again in Reeks’ interpretation of the pelican as a figure of parental tenderness and affection. Pelicans in heraldry are commonly shown injuring themselves by feeding their young with blood from their chests. Magdalen’s President is therefore equal parts brave and caring.  

The schoolmaster, the physician, the lawyer, the divine

Outside the Old Library are four hieroglyphics representing the scholastic offices/professions: the schoolmaster, the physician, the lawyer, and the divine, reflecting the University’s four faculties at the time, and the subjects in the library books on the other side of the windows.  

The first, the schoolmaster, sits holding rods in his right hand and a scroll in his left, standing for science and learning.

The second is the physician. In a late Victorian photograph album (dating between 1853 and 1885) that we have in the Old Library, the physician is described by Thomas Henry Toovey Hopkins as “Physician = phialam urinariam inspectans” – which translates to: physician = inspecting a phial of urine!  

The schoolmaster
The physician

The next hieroglyphic is a lawyer talking with his client [serio cum Cliente colloquendem].  

The last of the four figures, referred to as ‘the divine’ in both Reeks’ text and all those that follow, represents taking holy orders, or the study of theology. Reeks believed this figure depicted Moses holding the stone tablets from Mount Sinai. In this instance, Moses has horns, but this isn’t as unusual as one might think. In the Latin vulgate translation of the Bible, he is described as having them. It is thought that this may be a mistranslation of ‘keren‘ as the Hebrew word can mean two things: ‘grew horns’ or ‘radiated light’.   

The Lawyer restraining his client
The Divine

The fool

The four scholastic offices/professions – the schoolmaster, the physician, the lawyer, and the divine – represent the lives expected for 16th Century Magdalen students after their time at College. In the corner, immediately following these four hieroglyphics, is another wearing cap and bells. This figure represents the fool and serves as a warning to students – without directing your study to worthwhile pursuit, you’ll ‘turn fools in the end’. 

The story of David

The next three figures (below), which are positioned along the northern edge of the quadrangle, depict the story of David. The first shows David’s battle with a lion; as a young shepherd, he tells Saul that he has protected his flock from lions, which is what qualifies him to fight Goliath, the second figure in the triptych, shown with David’s deadly stone at his forehead. These first two figures teach Magdalen students (and all who visit our College) that we must not be discouraged by difficulties placed in our way. Rather, the sight of challenges should invigorate us to overcome them; as the boy shepherd overcame the lion and the giant. The final figure of the three is David as King. This represents the achievement of our goals, as well as the virtues of youth and vigour that will help us to overcome all that stands in our way.  

David conquering the lion
King David (or youth and vigour)

The hippopotamus

The next figure is a hippopotamus carrying a calf on its back. Now, we’re sure that when you look at this figure you think (much like we did) how is that a hippopotamus? Well, in many of the descriptions, it is described simply as ‘river-horse’. In fact, we get the word hippopotamus from two Greek words: hippos – meaning horse, and potamus – meaning river. It may well mean that the artist who carved this figure had never seen a hippo in real life, and so carved what he thought a ‘river-horse’ might look like.

The hippopotamus, in this instance, is said to be the emblem of a good tutor or Fellow of Magdalen College. In carrying its young one on its shoulders, it serves as a caretaker and a guide through the often-choppy waters of academic study, watching over the next generation as they ready themselves for their first entrances into the world.    

The vices

All the remaining figures represent either temperance or the vices members of College are meant to ignore. The figure immediately after the hippopotamus portrays sobriety or temperance (below).

However, the next figure has been a source of some contention in a few accounts of the hieroglyphics in Cloisters. It is said that she could be the female hieroglyphic for temperance, meaning that she and her neighbour are male and female counterparts to the same concept, or she could represent gluttony.  

Sobriety or temperance
Either the female counterpart to temperance or gluttony

The next two figures represent drunkenness and violence.

The hyaena (fraud)

These two figures are followed by a laughing hyaena depicting fraud. The next is either a panther or a tiger which represents treachery. Next comes the griffin depicting covetousness and a man brandishing his fists is anger. The dog is flattery, the dragon is envy, and the deer is timidity – all of which were discouraged in a Magdalen student at the time (but we won’t say no to a little bit of flattery, now!) 

The griffin (covetousness)
Panther/tiger (treachery)
Dragon (envy)
Dog (flattery)
Deer (timidity)

Finally, the last three figures represent pride, contention, and lust. The mantichora (a mythical monster with the head of a man, the body of a lion/beast of prey, porcupine quills, and the tail of a scorpion or the feet of a dragon) has often symbolised tyranny, or the threat of the unknown. In this instance, it may represent a warning against pride. The boxers represent contention, discord, and conflict.  

The final figure (a figure with a face in its belly) is termed alternately lust and, in Reeks, Slatter, and Hopkins’ works, the lamia. In Classical Mythology, the lamia is a terrifying female demon who eats children.  

Contention (recently restored by Alex Wenham)
Lamia (lust)

Magdalen’s hieroglyphics have survived for over five hundred years. Thanks to the repair work of master stonemasons like Alex Wenham we hope that future generations of visitors, students, and members of the College will speculate on their allegorical significance for another five hundred years.