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The three hares motif is a design that consists of three hares that have conjoined ears, are seen in profile — often in a running or leaping pose — and are arranged in a circle or triangle. Each hare appears to have two ears but shares them with the adjacent hare on each side, so that only three ears appear in the design, with the ears forming a triangle. This design has been used in art and architecture for centuries in areas such as the Far East and Europe. It typically appears in sacred art and architecture, although its meaning and origin are unknown. This motif has been used by artists in Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Islamic cultures.
Although the ancient examples of the three hares motif that are known to remain cover a wide geographical range, the majority are located in southeast England, particularly Devon, where they appear on more than two dozen roof bosses — stone or wooden bas reliefs — in local churches. In Devon, the design is commonly referred to as "tinners' rabbits," perhaps because local tin miners adopted the image as their trademark. The fact that tin miners regularly funded church repair and construction in the Middle Ages might be responsible for the profusion of the design in medieval churches in the area. Some private homes in Devon dating from the 16th and 17th centuries also feature the three hares design in their plaster ceilings.
Other than England, the most known examples of the three hares design are found in northern Germany and France. The oldest known example, however, hails from Dunhuang, China. These two facts have given rise to two alternate theories about the origin of the motif; it might be an ancient German or English symbol, which would explain the great number of these designs in those countries, or it might have traveled to western Europe from the East along trade routes.
In addition to roof bosses, the three hares motif appears in stained glass windows, floor tiles, paintings and carvings in European churches, as well as on a bell in a German abbey. In China, the earliest examples appear on Buddhist cave temple ceilings dating from the Sui and Tang dynasties of the years 581-907 AD. In the Middle East and Eastern Europe, medieval examples of the three hares motif include glass, ceramic, and metal works. Some notable pieces are a 13th century Iranian coin and an elaborate Islamic reliquary casket from southern Russia.
The beauty and mystery of the three hares design has continued to inspire artwork into the 21st century. Although its precise meaning is a matter of conjecture, hares and the number three hold ancient mystical significance. Hares have long been associated with lunar and feminine power. They also were thought in the ancient world to be hermaphroditic and capable of virgin birth, so the design might once have been associated with Jesus' birth by Christians.