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Man's Best Friend? Dogs in Medieval Art

The original idea for my current exhibition Medieval Beasts came from a surprising source: my veterinarian. During the annual check-up for my two ungainly but lovable German Shorthaired Pointers, Greta and Ingrid, I showed him an image of hunting dogs chasing a plump rabbit along the top margin of a manuscript page that I thought he would enjoy. He told me he thought animals in medieval art would make a great idea for an exhibition.
Hound Chasing a Rabbit / Unknown
A dog chases a plump rabbit in this detail from Initial E: A Priest Celebrating Mass, an illumination in a Spanish law code

Thinking about it seriously afterwards, I realized he was absolutely right. Perhaps at no other time in the Western history have animals played such a dominant role in the visual arts. Although animals are still an active part of our culture, they were so prevalent and essential in all aspects of medieval life that they appear in almost every corner of illuminated pages. A single animal could serve so many different functions in the medieval world, and there is no better example than the dog.

Given my love of dogs, it is perhaps no surprise that they appear multiple times in the exhibition, but I present each in a different context.

Hunters Pursuing a Deer / Unknown Coat of Arms / Fouquet
Loyal hounds: Details from Hunters Pursuing a Deer in Gaston Phébus's Book of the Hunt (left) and Coat of Arms Held by a Woman and a Greyhound in the Hours of Simon de Varie (right)

One of my favorite manuscripts in the exhibition is a hunting treatise devoted to the training and care of dogs. Its author, Gaston Phébus, owned 1,600 dogs himself and was a renowned authority on the art of hunting. The manual covers everything from the proper size of kennels, to the correct way to hold a leash, to how to reward dogs after the hunt. Hunting was the preferred sport of members of the aristocracy, but it also provided real results—meat that would be the centerpiece of a feast.

Dogs were an important part of daily life in the Middle Ages, but they were also frequently used symbolically as inherently aristocratic creatures. In a small prayer book featured in the exhibition made for the nobleman Simon de Varie, a lithe and dignified greyhound forms part of his coats of arms.

The dog serves as regal reminder of the qualities of loyalty and devotion, strength and speed. Simon's choice of this particular dog for his coat of arms reflected his noble status, as greyhounds were so prized in the Middle Ages that only members of the aristocracy could legally own them.

In contrast to these positive images of "man's best friend", dogs could appear in other frightening and bizarre ways in medieval representations.

Creatures from the Ends of the Earth / Unknown  
Detail from an illumination of Creatures from the Ends of the Earth in Hunters Pursuing a Deer in a Bestiary  
A manuscript describing creatures from the ends of the earth, located just to the right when entering the exhibition through the atrium, features an example of the dreaded Cynocephali, men with the heads of ferocious dogs and cloven hooves who were thought to roam the mountains of India. (The creature is at the far right in this detail.) Their only form of communication was barking, and they were thought to breathe flames. For those in the Middle Ages, an unknown world lurked beyond the bounds of Europe, equally a source of fascination and fear.

The dog is just one example of how integral animals were to the medieval imagination in a variety of different ways. Artists of the Middle Ages delighted in representing animals—illustrating saint's lives, playing hide-and-seek in the borders, populating farming scenes, acting as characters in fables, representing the evangelists, and even crawling among the very letters forming the text.

I invite you to come to the Getty Center and explore the world of medieval beasts. The exhibition is open until Sunday, July 29.

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