Animals in Western Art: From Magic to Science

Adam was given dominion over all animals in the Book of Genesis, but there was a sting in the tail – the serpent’s tail. While animals provided food, work, and companionship, they also harbored other traits, which threatened danger in the form of wild beasts or evil as in the snake-like form assumed by the devil in the Garden of Eden. In art, animals figure among the earliest known representations: the painted bison in the caves of Lascaux, or a coyote head fashioned from the pelvis bone of an extinct species of llama in Mexico, or the earliest Egyptian stele with their processions of falcons and other beasts.  A common feature of these earliest representations was a combination of direct observation and magical invocation; with cave paintings, in particular, the undulations of the rock form were employed by the artists to mimic the contours of the bodies of animals, and the carver of the coyote head must have seemed possessed with supernatural gifts to his or her contemporaries.

Art, of course, has the power to evoke images out of nothing, by making connections between medium and the subject represented. This imparted a magical quality to most early representations of animals. It was seen in fabulous beasts like the Egyptian sphinx or the winged bulls of Assyria, resplendent with pinions and the bearded heads of men, and it persists in the anthropomorphic treatment of animals from antiquity to early modern times. Grafted on to the representation of animals were allegorical and symbolic meanings, which are found in both the classical and biblical traditions. Human psychology and character traits were paraded in animal form by the fables attributed to Aesop, and animals play a fundamental role in representations of Christ as lamb of God or the four Evangelists symbolized by the ox, bull, eagle, and angel.

The classical zoological cultures of Aristotle’s Historia Animalium, Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, and late antique works like the Physiologus, contained a mixture of factual observation and folklore to which Christianity added an allegorical gloss. Take the case of the pelican, which became a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice because it was believed to revive its young with the flesh of its own breast. This erroneous observation was woven into a comparison with Christ’s crucifixion, when blood flowed from His side, symbolizing the water of salvation. This was the source of countless representations of the pelican and her offspring in medieval illuminations, ecclesiastical vestments, and stone sculptures. Thus, when one saw such images, one could interpret them in three ways: literally, symbolically, and allegorically. By the same token, the eagle, which adorns many lecterns in Christian churches, was considered the bird that flew highest and closest to God. The psalmist’s invocation to bless the Lord, “who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s [Psalm 103:5]”, contained an allusion to the regeneration of the eagle by the heat of the sun and the cleansing action of spring water.

The medieval bestiary was a major vehicle for transmitting images of animals and their Christological interpretation. As a literary form, the bestiary was a compendium of information and misinformation, enlivened by marginal illustrations of animals. Often these images now need to be deciphered because any resemblance—especially in the case of more exotic animals like elephants or tigers—can be tenuous. They are generally depicted as acting out mythic behavior, such as the lion resuscitating its stillborn cubs by licking them or the even more fabulous unicorn being tamed by a virgin.

Ancient texts were respected for their auctoritas or authority, which was only gradually supplanted by contact with animals and observation of their traits and features. Menageries—both royal and civic—contributed to this shift from symbolic representation to more scientific study: there in one place artists and the general public could watch ostriches, leopards, camels, and a variety of birds. Thus, a Florentine chronicler of the fourteenth century witnessed the birth of live lion cubs, not stillborn as recorded by Pliny and the author of the Physiologus. The charismatic St. Francis of Assisi (c.1182-1226) also fostered a new awareness of animals, and his Canticle of Creatures or hymn to creation was one of the earliest compositions in the Italian vernacular. Likewise, the saint’s interaction with animals became a source of illustration. His miraculous preaching to the birds was depicted in the earliest altar panel dedicated to him in Pescia, near Florence, by Bonaventura Berlinghieri (c. 1235). Seventy years later, a predella panel by Giotto in the Louvre presented the same miracle withan array of carefully rendered images of hawfinches, magpies, and goldfinches, among others.

By the end of the fourteenth century, sketchbooks with more precise renderings of animals were in circulation. The Italian humanist, Bartolomeo Facio wrote of the painter Pisanello that he was “blessed with true poetic genius in rendering the appearance of things and in expressing their sensitivity; in painting horses and other animals, he was considered superior to all others by the conoscenti.” Many of Pisanello’s drawings survive, and they display great flair in capturing the plumage and coloring of birds as well as more exotic animals like cheetahs and a camel. He drew them with an interest in reportage that raises them above other albums of similar material, and they found their way into frescoes like his St. George and the Princess in Sant’Anastasia, Verona, or his panel painting, The Vision of St. Eustace, in the National Gallery, London, where the saint on horseback is framed by a veritable menagerie of hunting dogs, game and birds, many of them traceable to the artist’s previously prepared studies. In an exquisite portrait like Pisanello’s Ginevra d’Este in the Louvre, four butterflies are rendered with enough accuracy as to be identifiable.

The sketchbook tradition continued well into the fifteenth century, and Benozzo Gozzoli’s fresco of the Procession of the Medici in the chapel of Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence offers a cavalcade of carefully presented portraits, both of men and animals. The birds in particular have the appearance of quotations from another source, but the hunting cheetahs in their bejeweled collars bear only a passing acquaintance with their originals. Albrecht Dürer raised this kind of study to a high art form, and he approached studies of stag beetles or dragonflies with the same eye for detail that made him peerless in the realm of woodcuts and engravings. One of his most mesmerizing images is a watercolor from 1502, showing a crouching hare in an attitude of intense concentration. Dürer manages a deft balance between details like the whiskers, fur, and the reflection of light in its brown eyes without losing a sense of the animal as a whole. Indeed, the authority of Dürer’s animal studies was such that his celebrated 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros continued to be cited in later publications, even after photography showed that Dürer’s image had been based upon second-hand accounts and not direct observation.

During the period known as the High Renaissance, two factors changed the way artists and the educated public regarded animals: the medium of print and cabinets of curiosity. Books devoted to natural history enabled a wider reading public to recognize a variety of native and more exotic animals. Exploration of the Indies – both East and West – brought animals like tigers into sharper focus while introducing new species like the American wild turkey. Pierre Belon’s Histoire de la nature des oyseux of 1555 was the first printed book devoted solely to birds, illustrating not only their bone structure but also various species in a comparative manner. Though of good quality, its woodcuts were largely executed in the manner of artists’ sketchbooks. Belon’s book was complemented by Guillaume Rondolet’s treatise on sea-dwelling fish of the same date as well as a host of similar texts produced in Europe in the latter part of the sixteenth century. Some of these authors, like the Bolognese doctor Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), had notable collections or cabinets of curiosity, which they used for their research.

Cabinets of curiosity or Kunstkammern—to give them their German title—were the forerunners of modern museums. They were composed of natural and manmade objects and could trace their lineage back to the treasuries of great medieval churches like San Marco in Venice or Cologne Cathedral, in which the miraculous bones of saints and other sacred relics were displayed in containers made by the finest goldsmiths and stonecutters. Over time, the workmanship of the artisans rather than the thaumaturgic power of the relic commanded greater attention. Moreover, the scope of the princely Kunstkammer became the means of presenting the macrocosm of the world in microcosm. In addition to precious objects and regalia like crowns and scepters, these assemblages contained ancestral armor, portraits and other paintings, and specimens of natural history. The last category included minerals, fossils, botanical and ethnographic specimens, not to mention artifacts fashioned from exotic materials such as ivory, amber, and rock crystal. The objects in such collections were assembled in cabinets, a word that meant either a cupboard or the room in which such cupboards were housed. In Italy, these rooms were called studioli, in France estudes, both of which share the same Latin root as our modern word “study.” The name underscores a principal function of the cabinet as a place where the prince or a private collector could pursue the contemplative life as an antidote to the intrigues of the court or the pressures of everyday life.

By the sixteenth century, the mania for collecting had filtered down into the realm of the wealthy and the intellectually curious. Animals initially figured in cabinets of curiosity as fossils, skeletons, tortoise shells or pelts, but by the turn of the seventeenth century, many cabinets began to be known as museums and were sights of cultural pilgrimage from Naples to Copenhagen. Because taxidermy was then in its infancy, accurate drawings or paintings of animals were in demand, especially to identify new and rare specimens from distant corners of the world. Perhaps the finest artist of this kind at the end of the Renaissance was the Italian Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1626). After entering the service of the Medici Grand Dukes in Tuscany, Ligozzi began specializing in tempera studies of exotic plants and animals acquired by his patrons for their gardens and collections. It doesn’t matter now that his princely employer, Francesco I de’ Medici, was primarily interested in alchemy, poisons, and their antidotes; Ligozzi’s assignment was to delineate precisely the flora and fauna set before him. His studies, whether a study of a dormouse or a flying fish, have an intensity and attention to detail that anticipate modern photography. Like Leonardo da Vinci before him, Ligozzi’s focus on the subject at hand foreshadowed the empiricism of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientific analysis of the natural world. With the Enlightenment, the old cabinets of curiosity became the victims of their own success as they were broken up into component parts, eventually becoming museums of natural history as well as art. The artistic creations of Dürer, Ligozzi and others fall somewhere between both worlds.