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October 02, 2017 4 min read


The Amazing Art History of Pet Portraits- PART TWO- Europe, the medieval and the pre-renaissance

We have already covered the usage of pets in portraits, including cute cat portraits and dog portraits as well as horse portraits in the ancient world and feudal Japan and China during early art history. Moving onto the usage of pet portraits in western civilisation during the dark ages and medieval periods.

Circa 1520, Cologne Cathedral, pet dog jumps on the bed


The dark ages have a distinct absence of art, there were very few artistic portrayals of pets not many animals were depicted, added to this is the lack of survival of paintings (mainly wall murals) from that period, which is exacerbated by the general slowdown of cultural experimentation and progress during the dark ages.

Above- Dark Ages art the first page of The Venerable Bede, with hunting dogs and large cats, 695 AD

There are a few rare examples of animal drawings and illustrations which have survived from the dark ages, from the early middle ages (476 AD onwards) there is a noticeable uptrend of exampels of the depictions of animals but not pets in Art History, a notable example from Great Britain is the surviving text from The Ecclesiastical History of the English People from 695AD.

Moving onto the later medieval period in Europe, we see the flowering of paintings which depict hunting scenes of dogs and coincidentally show horses as well. Hunting scenes were common topics in medieval and Renaissance art, hunting in the medieval period was largely the preserve of the nobility and upper classes, and in the European code of chivalry, hunting became an integral part of court customs and etiquette.

Medieval Hunting Dogs


The drawing of a person together with a hunting dog, hawks or falcons would signal status, or was the sign of a noble person - and in many countries, only the nobility was allowed under law to hunt certain animals, or certain animals would be kept on reserves for the aristocracy or royal family and severe punishments could be inflicted if commoners were caught hunting. There are less paintings from the middle ages of cats, however as the flowering of the renaissance came in Italy, we see the first genuine pet portraits start to surface, and instead of two-dimensional renderings,w e see the influence of early theories of perspective.


Cat painting as a luteplayer, from the Court of Dresden, circa 1520

During the medieval period, the depiction of actual pets in portraits or paintings was very rare but not unheard of, whereas Asian cultures were arguably more evolved and using to domesticating and keeping animals at home, and indeed the keeping of pets may have been more common practice in Asian society than in Western civilisation, Asian artists were also arguably more sympathetic to utilising actual domesticated pets in portraits.

Giotto painting, notice the loving dog with docile sheep


The renaissance was preceded in art history by another period, imaginatively called the “pre-renaissance”! This pre-renaissance period sprouted in Italy in the late 1290’s with artists like Giotto, however tit wasn’t until the genius Piero della Francesca appeared in the early 1500’s that we see a step change in painting overall, as the master Piero invented the usage of perspective, this revolutionised Art History and helped give the paintings of pets a new “aliveness” and clarity that had never been seen before in the history of Art. This brought forth the renaissance in both Italy, Holland and eventually the rest of Europe.

Piero Della Francesca, dogs close up


Piero Della Francesca, analysis of perspective, no pets though!


In later medieval and pre-renaissance art dogs symbolize faith and loyalty. A dog, when included in an allegorical painting (allegorical broadly means double meaning, usually with an apparent figurative meaning and a deeper hidden or symbolic meaning). For instance, in the portrait of a married couple, a dog placed in a woman's lap or at her feet can represent marital fidelity. If the portrait is of a widow, a dog can represent her continuing faithfulness to the memory of her late husband.


An example of a dog representing marital fidelity is present in Jan van Eyck's portrait above. An oil painting on oak panel dated 1434 by the Dutch painter Jan van Eyck, it is a small full-length double portrait, which is believed to represent the Italian merchant Arnolfini and his wife, depicted in their home in the city of Bruges The picture portrays a wedding scene, where the people invited to witness the ceremony can be seen in the convex mirror at the back, the mirror symbolizing the eye of God. The little dog symbolizes in the Middle Ages iconography the virtue of faithfulness. Unlike the couple, the dog looks out to meet the gaze of the viewer. During the Middle Ages, many images of dogs were carved into tombstones to represent the deceased's feudal loyalty or marital fidelity.