Tag Archives: Animals in Art

Fantastic Beasts (and where to find them)

When I need to find fantastic beasts I know precisely where to go: straight to Conrad Gessner’s five-volume Historiae animalium (1551-1558) or to its English variant, Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), both of which are illustrated extensively and digitized. Why do I need fantastic beasts? Principally for teaching purposes: there’s nothing better to illustrate the sense of the wonder of discovery in the early modern era along with a fledgling (in Topsell’s case very fledgling) scientific empiricism. Both authors describe what they have seen or heard about these beasts, and that is the difference between the early modern approach and the modern one: hearing about things seems to be just as valid as seeing them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consequently a unicorn can be just as real as a rhinoceros, as neither had actually been seen. What I generally do with the images and descriptions of these texts is examine very real, even mundane animals side by side with more exotic, fantastic ones, and compare the details of their descriptions: a more scientific empiricism is evident in descriptions of dogs, horses and sheep, while the much shorter chapters on camels and lions and tigers–and their more mysterious but fellow four-footed beasts–rely on ancient “authorities” and “sundry learned” authors. We do not see the hearsay purged from natural history texts until the later seventeenth and eighteenth century, and thereafter fantastic beasts roam into the realm of the imagination.

gessner-camel-1

topsell-camel1

You can see how dependent Topsell (bottom) was on Gessner (top) in their comparative illustrations of camels, along with many of the other beasts–both common and exotic–featured in both books. Gesner’s peacock is particularly beautiful, and he also includes a North American turkey.

gessner-peacock_43

Beavers are very interesting to both Gessner and Topsell, as the European beaver had become very scarce, if not extinct, in the region and its American counterparts were the source of both valuable fur and a musk-like substance called castoreum, which is secreted by both male and female beavers every spring. Gessner and Topsell both feature rather ferocious beavers, and the latter added an alternate view exposing the supposed source of castoreum.

gessner-beaver_28

topsell-beaver-side

topsell-beaver-illustration1

Now for some truly fantastic beasts: the unicorns of Gessner and Topsell, a satyr from Gessner, along with some sea monsters and a seven-headed hydra.

gessner-unicorn_16

gessnerunicorn_topsell_olio00000003472md

gessner-satyr_monster_36

gessner-sea-monsters

gessner-hydra

Topsell’s Baboon looks rather wondrous/monstrous, but his manticore, a composite beast of ancient Persian origin, and the legendary lamia, a vampire-like siren, represent a more threatening form of hybrid monster. Here be dragons and sea serpents too, as well as beast from the New World (where wonders abound) called the Su, all part of God’s plan.

topsell-baboon1

topsell-manticore

topsell-lamia2

topsell-dragons1

topsell-sea-serpent1

topsell-su1 Illustrations from Conrad Gessner’s  Historiae animalium (1551-1558) and Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), National Library of Medicine and University of Houston.


A Very Porcine New Year

Along with four-leaf clovers, chimney sweepers, mushrooms, and horseshoes, pigs were the most common symbols of good luck for the New Year a century ago, and they appear on all sorts of greeting cards for that purpose. This is a tradition that is more continental than British, and more eastern European than western–although some of the most charming New Year’s pig postcards I have seen are French. The lucky pig does not seem to have taken hold in New England expressions–even those by the Polish-born Louis Prang–but in New York State (or more specifically, Saratoga Springs), smashing a peppermint variety heralds in the New Year. Traditional New Year’s Day fare from central Europe features pork as well, though this seems a bit contradictory to me–why would you want to eat your lucky charm? Best wishes to everyone for a joyful 2015: may we all be as happy as veritable pigs in clover!

The best pigs are from Vienna……Carl Josza, Raphael Kirchner (c. 1899-1900), and more Mela Koehler (c. 1910), from the Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Porcine New Year

Porcine New Year MFA 2

Porcine New Year Koehler 1

Porcine MK MFA

Porcine New Year 1910 Koehler MFA

Skiing (Swedish) and Skating (French) pigs, c. 1914-1915

Porcine New Year Swedish pre-war

Porcine New Year 1915 Skating

German postcards from the Spehr collection, available here: all the symbols (minus mushrooms) from 1908, and a pig on top of the world in 1915.

Porcine Postcard New Year's

Porcine New Year 9 World


Of Mice and Martyrs

On this day in 1555, two of the three “Oxford Martyrs’ were put to death for their manifest Protestant heresy by the government of her Catholic Majesty Queen Mary I, an event which went a long way in cementing her historical identity as “Bloody Mary” after Protestantism was re-established in England. Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley did not leave the country with her accession, like many of their conspicuous co-religionists, and so they paid the ultimate price along with the former Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, who was sent to the flames several months later. In his passionate and polemical account, Actes and Monuments, John Foxe illustrated the onset of their valiant deaths–just before the flames were lit– and recorded Latimer”s final words: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; for we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace,  in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

Mice Foxe

I thought I would take the occasion of this dark anniversary to explore a long-held connection between Mary’s most prominent martyrs and the children’s nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice. It seems like an odd pairing, but I have a distinct childhood memory of my mother telling me that Queen Mary was the mean farmer’s wife who cut off the tails of the three blind (-folded, apparently, or blinded by the light? or blinded by Protestantism?) mice/bishops/martyrs. Now she definitely had a Protestant bias, but she didn’t make this tale up–it’s been out there for a while, and the internet has done much to turn it into “fact” without much basis. Is there any? It sounds plausible, as seemingly-innocent nursery rhymes and fairy tales often have darker hidden meanings, but there are a few problems–and very little evidence–for any connection between the mice and the martyrs.

MICE Nypl 1918

Mice Nursery Songs

The most apparent problem is one of perspective: how could an account which portrays the Queen as a malicious woman (sometimes a miller’s wife, or a butcher’s wife, before she becomes exclusively the farmer’s wife) who carves off the tails of mice also portray those very same mice (bishops) as “blind”? It’s not clear whether there is an anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant bias here–certainly if it is the former the mice should be not only able to see the light but also enlightened:  they are the light, according to Latimer’s quote. But the biggest problem is any kind of contemporary allusion: the first reference to the rhyme (or “round”) occurs in a little 1609 ballad book, Thomas Ravenscroft’s Deuteromelia, or, the Second Part of Musicks melodie, or melodius Musicke, of Pleasant Roundelaies; K. H. mirth, or Freemens Songs, and such delightfull Catches as nothing more than a little ditty–whether it reflects an earlier verse I do not know. When it reappears in the various Victorian nursery rhyme compilations, it’s pretty much the recognizable standard. Something either happened in the interim or we have yet another example of the Victorian “invention of tradition”. In any case, there is no obvious hint of a Marian subtext in its first appearance. And there are far too many “generally accepted” references in the scholarly literature–I’m coming to the conclusion that the mice were just mice and the farmer’s wife wanted them out of her kitchen.

Mice Homer 1858Mice Paula Rego 1989 V and A

Illustration credits:  John Foxe, Actes and Monuments, 1563 edition; Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1918, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Joseph Moorat, Thirty OldTime Nursery Songs, 1912 (Illustrated by Paul Vincent Woodroffe); Winslow Homer illustration from The Eventful History of Three Blind Mice, 1858; Paula Rego, Three Blind Mice, 1989, Victoria & Albert Museum


Here be Hedgehogs

Well, it’s actually Hedgehog Awareness Week, so I feel that I need to do my part. I always decorate with animals, and generally it’s a seasonal cycle of snails/foxes/deer/rabbits with a few individual oddities, but just recently I bought a cute ceramic hedgehog so I was thinking about about expanding my menagerie…..and then came Hedgehog Awareness Week! Interesting and historical images of hedgehogs are not difficult to find: medieval illustrators often inserted urcheons/urchins into the margins of their manuscripts and there are also several tales to inspire images: Aesop’s Fox and the Hedgehog ( a title that was adapted by Isaiah Berlin for his classic essay on types of thinkers, inspired by the observation of Archilochus that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing), the Grimm brothers’ Hans-my-Hedgehog and The Hare and the Hedgehog, and a host of other hedgehog stories penned (and drawn) more recently. There are hedgehogs in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Rabbit: they are a cute and easy addition to any illustrated story. So it was difficult to narrow down my collection of hedgehog images, but here goes.

Medieval Urchins (hence Sea Urchins!):

Hedgehog BL 2-001

Hedgehog Egerton-001

Add. 39636, f. 13.

Hedgehog and Ape-001

British Library MS Harley 3244 f. 49v (13th c.); MS Egerton 1121 f. 44v (15th c.–the hedgehog mocks the goat admiring his reflection in a stream); MS Additional 39636, ff. 13  (15th c.–St. Benedict and a hedgehog); Royal 15 E IV f. 180 (15th c.)

Some early modern hedgehogs: because of his voracious appetite and hibernation habit, the hedgehog often represented gluttony, as on the flag below, and his round silhouette was made for mockery:

Hedgehog vices BM-001

Hedgehog and Hare BM-001

Hedgehog 1777 BM-001

British Museum engraving of the Vices by Heinrich Aldegrever, 1552; engraving after Marcus Gheeraerts’ illustrations of Aesop’s Fables, c. 1630; satirical print of “Miss Hedgehog” published by Matthew Daly, 1777

Whimsical and utilitarian hedgehogs, 19th-21st centuries:

V0049518 A crowned fairy king seated on a hedgehog drawn by a young g Hedgehog Bulb Pot Wedgwood V and A 1820-001

Hedgehog Pincushion-001

Hedgehog May-001

The King of the Fairies rides his hedgehog, 19th c., Wellcome Library Images; Bulb Pot by Josiah Wedgwood, 1820, Victoria & Albert Museum; Hedgehog pincushion (there’s a long tradition of these!), Tatjana Ceramics; Calendar Page for May, Catherine Bradbury,© Catherine Bradbury, Bridgeman Art Library / Private Collection

 


 

 

 


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