Cryptic creatures in art

The monkey that bears the seal of mischief in literature, was regrettably seen as an incarnation of the devil by artists of the early Middle Ages.
Image used for representational purposes only
Image used for representational purposes only

The English language has firmly assigned, character traits to most animal species. The quiet tortoise’s lack of speed has been often advertised as the perfect way to win life’s marathons by the addition of adjective ‘steady’, the poor rat that has never refused to squeak has been silenced with the simile, ‘as quiet as a mouse’, the peacock’s proud gait has made it the epitome of pride and then of course, there are the loud proclamations of the valour of spineless individuals in power of any sort, by comparing them with the majestic lion.

Art however, has never associated any creature — beast or pet, with singular meanings. A canine in art, for instance, can symbolise anything from loyalty to seduction. Representations may be contradictory from canvas to canvas, but animal symbolism in art certainly has a rich history.

The cute bunny rabbit has played several endearing characters in a multitude of books for children. To grown adults, its ability to mate and multiply abundantly has been used widely in discussions of the rapidly escalating population. Art considers this fecundity as a symbol of the powerful emotion of lust. A number of Renaissance paintings which are erotic in nature feature pairs of rabbits lurking in the corners, eyes twinkling in a subtle attempt to convey its tantalising message. If you happen to see rabbits at the feet of Mother Mary, that is another story altogether, which has to do with a myth that these adorable animals can reproduce without a partner, thus signifying virgin birth in this case.

Dogs, for most part, have been known to be man’s best friend and lauded for their faithfulness and blind loyalty. Artists however, have also donned them with coats of avarice, rage and other negative attributes in numerous paintings. Italian Renaissance painter Titian, paired a dog with Judas in his masterpiece ‘The Last Supper’, thereby associating the canine with treachery. In the later years, these hounds were toned down to represent female seduction and devotedness.

The monkey that bears the seal of mischief in literature, was regrettably seen as an incarnation of the devil by artists of the early Middle Ages. Thankfully, these negative overtones were revised in the later periods and artists used these primates to denote humans and all their earthly desires. Monkeys were a constant feature in the self portraits of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Although Mexican folklore connected them with lust, Kahlo considered them to be tenderly child-like and personified them in her paintings as the children she could not have, due to health complications.

Similarly, the chatterbox parrot was considered an emblem of sacred motherhood or Immaculate Conception in art, while the proud peacock was honoured as a mark of immortality. In ancient times, the multi-hued bird was believed to possess flesh that never decayed and hence, the peacock could be found perched in many paintings of the time to signify eternal life. The presence of animals and birds in art, transcends time and culture. Understanding their varied representations throughout history helps us comprehend the beliefs that have shaped the human race. Lusty hares and back-stabbing mongrels continue to offer glimpses into human culture.

Talking Art

Jitha Karthikeyan

(Jitha Karthikeyan is an artist and curator, passionate about making art accessible to the larger public)

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The New Indian Express