The Mysterious Owl on the Cathedral Notre-Dame of Dijon

By Lorris Chevalier

A look into a mysterious medieval carving at a French cathedral. Why was it put there?

As you walk along Owl Street in the heart of historic Dijon, you come across a small relief sculpture adorning one of the northern buttresses of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. It depicts an owl, and it has been watching over Dijon’s inhabitants for almost eight centuries, to the point of becoming the emblem of the Burgundian capital.


Well known to the people of Dijon, the small nocturnal bird is even believed to have the power to grant wishes if one strokes it with the left hand, the hand of the heart. Be cautious, however, not to cross paths with the gaze of the salamander, sculpted a little higher on the wall, as it could then cancel the enchantment! This tradition is surprising, considering that in the past, owls were nailed to the doors of barns to ward off evil. Usually, sculptures are placed higher, but this is the only sculpture at this height on the street.

Photo by Lorris Chevalier

It is difficult to determine when this tradition originated, but there are several theories regarding its entirely mysterious existence.


Theory #1 – An Antiquity Reference

It is a reference to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. She watches over the small street around the church and grants wishes of wisdom to those who, out of superstition, touch the sculpture.

Theory #2 – A Joke from the Architect

This is a joke, a marginalia intended by the architect named Chouet. “Chouette” in French translates to “owl” in English.

The Salamander – Photo by Lorris Chevalier

Theory #3 – An Evil Symbol

In the few mentions of owls or birds of the same family in Biblical scriptures, they are listed among the unclean animals (Leviticus 11:13,16; Deuteronomy 14:15). Owls do not represent something dirty but rather something unfit for consumption. In Isaiah 13:21, it is mentioned that Babylon will be inhabited by Great Horned Owls, symbolizing desolation.

Moreover, for people in the Middle Ages, the owl often represented Jews who had rejected Jesus Christ and acknowledged only Caesar as their king. They were considered individuals who preferred darkness over light.


Theory #4 – The Symbol of Vigilance

The owl is a biblical symbol of the watcher, the one who remains awake in the night. One of the great sins against which preachers have been fighting since the beginning of the Middle Ages is ACEDIA: a state of laziness and spiritual lethargy among the Christian people. Therefore, symbols are needed to stay awake and continue the fight of faith to which every person of the Middle Ages is called.

By touching it with the left hand as the tradition states, the body turns away from another, even more discreet sculpture of a salamander, a figure of the devil. Thus, the faithful turns away from evil, and by touching the statue, commits to no longer deviate from the narrow path to salvation and to remain vigilant against the attacks of the devil.

Regardless of the theories, the importance of this symbol lies in the wisdom one is supposed to gain from this practice. In the medieval era, wisdom was not just a desirable trait; it was a necessity for survival and progress. Whether in matters of morality, governance, or daily life, the possession of wisdom distinguished the truly moral individuals from the rest. It was the guiding force that illuminated the path through the dark and uncertain times of the medieval period, leaving an enduring legacy that shaped the course of history.


Dr Lorris Chevalier, who has a Ph.D. in medieval literature, is a historical advisor for movies, including The Last Duel and Napoleon.

See also: Why are there Ostrich Eggs in Medieval Churches?

Top Image: Photo by StéphaneMarie / Wikimedia Commons