Typically installed on rooftops, weathervanes are devices that comprise a rotating component mounted on a fixed vertical axle and whose purpose is to show the direction of the wind, as well as its cardinal point of origin. They are often decorated with an image of a cockerel, typically made of wrought iron openwork, that pivots to point into the wind. This MuCEM piece of wood and iron does not depart from that tradition.
The symbolism of the cockerel however remains a matter of debate: possibly of Christian origin, referencing Christ the Protector at the top of a church steeple, or perhaps pagan, referring to the national emblem of Gaul, and in either case singing in the dawning of a new day.
The MuCEM’s collections contain some 30 weathervanes, most of them made in France. This object was acquired during the collection survey conducted in the Aubrac, in Auvergne, by the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, during the 1960s. George-Henri Rivière, the museum’s founder, saw research as the museum’s most vital mission. Beginning in 1939, he would launch field surveys with the aim of taking stock of French rural society. The objective was twofold: to collect objects and to gather documentation about them.
The origin of this representation of a cockerel at the tops of our village steeples remains unknown. It is believed that the practice dates back to the 9th century.
The cockerel was said to have been the bird of light, the emblem of Christ and of the intelligence of God, announcing the day and calling all souls to a Christian way of life. Like Christ, it announces the arrival of the light of day after the dark of night or symbolically, the arrival of good after evil. Just as the cockerel announces each new day, the Christian awaits the day when Our Lord will return. This may be why images of this fowl perch at the tops of our churches today.
For others, though, the symbolism is different, instead representing the resurrection. “In Christian art, it is the emblem of St. Peter: the symbol of Christ’s resurrection, of Christian vigilance, and of preachers” (Canon L-E. Marcel). Another explanation might be that the first Christians would meet for morning prayer when the cock crowed, up until the appearance of church bells around the 5th century.
So in answer to the question of why there are cockerels on church steeples, all we can do is conjecture. What seems clear though, after an examination of this symbolism, is that the cockerel in its lofty position is evocative of Christ the Protector, vigilant and defending his children. The cockerel weathervane, always facing into the wind, is the symbol of Christ facing the sins and dangers of the world and, by extrapolation, of Christians facing those same dangers and sins.