Thursday, January 10, 2013

Episode 3: Animal Symbology in Christian Art

What do all of those animals in Christian art represent?
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Here is one version of Leonardo's Madonna with a Cat

Here is a second one.
Here is Federico Barocci's Madonna of the Cat. Note that John the Baptist holds a goldfinch. The goldfinch eats thorns and represents the passion, and its association with the crown of thorns.
In Rembrandt's print Madonna and Child with Cat notice that Mary is trampling a serpent beneath he feet. Mary represents the new Eve as Jesus represents the new Adam.
My new favorite Albrecht Dürer print is The Monstrous Pig of Landser. Monstrous indeed.
Dürer also made a print called Prodigal Son Among the Pigs. The pig is often associated with the parable.
Dürer has his main figure in a similar pose in his Saint Eustache.  Saint Eustache is the patron saint of hunters and is often represented praying to a deer. The deer usually has a crucifix between its antlers, as it does here. In this print the foreshortening a bit awkward. At first glance it looks like Eustanche is praying to his horse.
 Saint Anthony vanquished the Pig Demon of Sensuality. The pig is often associated with Saint Anthony.

Dail painted his famous Temptation of Saint Anthony without including a pig.
Matthias Grünewald's Temptation of St. Anthony is awesome, though pigless.
Pieter Huys's Temptation of Saint Anthony has a lot going on but there is no pig to be found.
Joos van Craesbeck's Saint Anthony has a pig, and an odd one at that. This theme really allowed these painters, particularly those of the Northern Renaissance, to go to town with the most crazy imagery their ample imaginations could come up with.

The basilisk is half chicken and half serpent. According to legend it could kill you just by looking at you and is associated with the Devil or the Antichrist. Psalm 91:13 reads, "Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon."Most English and Protestant translations of the verse substitute basilisk for adder of cobra. 

Here is a Dürer print of a basilisk.
Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi has both a leopard and an ape. Both of these animals represent evil, sin, and the need for Christ. Flies and other ominous symbols are often featured in Adoration scenes.

The scallop shell represents pilgrimage and is particularly associated Santiago de Compostela in Spain. In this photo the Pope wears his pilgrim's cloak adorned with the scallop shell.
Symbolism in Christian art is an enormous subject. In this podcast I only dealt with animals. 

Much of my information came from George Ferguson's marvelous book Sign and Symbols in Christian Art. Sections are available online at google books. It is also available at Amazon.

Corrections: I misspoke and said Saint Veronica has eyeballs on a dish. That is Saint Lucy.
I also said that there was a basilisk in the King James Bible in Psalm 91:13. King James reads adder. The Douay-Rheims Bible has the basilisk. The Douay-Rheims is the English translation of the Latin Vulgate.

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