Renaissance Rabbits

Yesterday I found myself thinking and teaching about the intersection of science and art in the Renaissance quite a bit.  At one point I was lecturing on this topic with the visual aid of an older powerpoint presentation in which I had inserted a slide of Albrecht Durer’s Young Hare as a perfect illustration of observational art.  And suddenly it seemed as if I was seeing this image for the first time, so struck was I by its perfect depiction of an everyday animal.

I keep forgetting; it always stops me in my tracks.  I hope this particular image isn’t becoming too commonplace; Ballard Designs produced a cheap canvas wallhanging last year that both horrified and attracted me.  Rabbits are interesting because they so very familiar and unthreatening, but at the same time useful for social commentary.  In the medieval period, for example, you occasionally see a reversal “hunting hares” vignette in manuscript marginalia, where rabbits are the hunters (of hounds and men) rather than the hunted:  a classic world-turned-upside-down scenario.  In the Renaissance, the rabbit adds a touch of realism and familiarity to paintings and serves as a useful subject for illustrators striving to prove their technical skills.

Below are four fifteenth-century images of rabbits demonstrating the transition from anthropomorphic actors to observed objects, all from the British Library Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:  baking and jousting (with a snail! on a monkey’s back! And the snail’s monkey is on stilts) rabbits from marginalia, a rabbit illustrating a celestial chart, and a page from an Italian herbal.

British Library MS Lansdowne 451

British Library MS Harley 4379, Froissarts Chroniques

British Library MS Arundel 66, 1490

British Library MS Sloane 4010

After the sixteenth century turned, a succession of Renaissance bestiaries were issued with updated, “scientific” information about the beasts of the world (both ordinary and exotic) and detailed accompanying illustrations.  The most popular Renaissance bestiary by far was the Swiss naturalist (and alchemist) Conrad Gesner’s five-volume Historiae Animalium (1551-1558) which features a charming illustration of a rabbit, shown below, along with an English “cony” from Edward Topsell’s translation and abridgment of Gesner, The Historie of foure-footed beastes (1607).

All rabbits represented sexuality and fertility (then as now), but apparently white rabbits symbolized a special virginal type of fertility, hence its prominent placement in Titian’s Madonna of the Rabbit (1530; the Louvre), shown below. 

An even rarer breed of rabbit, perhaps the victim of some genetic disorder or the predecessor of the legendary jackalope, is the horned rabbit, or “Raurackl”, pictured in a print from the Flemish artist and illustrator Joris Hoefnagel’s Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia (1575-80).

Even with his more familiar companions, this rabbit presents a rather unsettling image; best to return to where I began, with realistic and reliable representation of the common hare.  This last image (Crouching Hare)  is from my favorite seventeenth-century observational etcher, Wenceslaus Hollar, whose works are accessible at the University of Toronto’s Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection.


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