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The Three Hares

The Three Hares carved in the wooden screen

Many of the congregation of Holy Trinity church in Fareham would probably never even have heard of or seen the ‘three hares’ in church. They are carved into the wooden screen behind the altar and in front of the chancel. There are three hares in a circle adjoined by their ears. What is even more unusual is that there are only three ears in total, but each appears to have two ears.

The history surrounding this ancient symbol goes back many hundreds of years, with the earliest known examples to be found in Buddhist cave temples at Mogao, near Dunhuang, in China, dating from 600 AD. The motif has also been found on Islamic metalwork, ceramic and glass, in Christian illuminated manuscripts, on roof bosses in Western European churches and on a ceiling in a Jewish synagogue. The connection between these examples has baffled historians for many centuries as has the meaning of this symbol.

In their search for a connection, historians have come across the symbol being used in many different places. It accompanies images of Buddha, can be found decorating a casket that once contained the bones of St Lazarus and in central Europe, surrounds the image of the pagan character the Green Man. It is even chimed daily on a 13th century bell in a German monastery. The Hare is also believed to have mystical links to the female cycle and to the moon that governs it, although it also has been associated with madness, fertility, love and good fortune. In Christian contexts, the three hares may be associated with the Virgin Mary in her role in the redemption of mankind.

With all these being used in different religions and context, it is difficult to be sure exactly what the carving in Holy Trinity church represents, although the general consensus is that it represents fertility and the Holy Trinity.