The Animal Instincts Of Art: The History

The Animal Instincts Of Art: The History

Author: Rachele Paradiso

Who said that the best artworks represent only still lifes, portraits, and landscapes?
Also our animal friends for too long a time have been depicted and appreciated by artists. The iconographic tradition of animal representation is ancient and well-established: since the Paleochristian period, indeed, animal representation has appeared in both frescoes and carved stone and marble. Just think of the tombs of the martyrs on which the first representations of animals appeared with strong symbolic meanings hailing from the classical tradition: peacocks symbolized Christ, fish spirituality, and doves the Holy Spirit. In turn, these symbols derived from even more ancient cultures: Greek and Roman.

In the ancient tradition, every divinity was often depicted with its animal equivalent, and mythology provided an interesting source of inspiration for both marine and land animals. In the ancient times, artistic fantasy generated numerous artifacts reproducing mythological creatures, i.e. strange beings whose body parts belonged to different animals, both male and female. These legendary creatures were often described as monstrous beings by many ancient cultures, not only in the Greek-Roman one. Think of the historic Chimaera, a terrible winged monster with the head and body of a lion, the head of a goat on the back, and the tail of a serpent or a dragon. Or the Minotaur, a monstrous creature with the head of a bull and a human body, locked up in the labyrinth of Crete, feeding himself with human flesh. Our bestiary continues with the Unicorn, the white horse with the fantastic twisted alicorn on the head, symbolizing purity and chastity, sacred to the Chinese culture: it could be seen only in the occasion of the birth of a sovereign. Furthermore, the Sphinx: the most enigmatic ancient creature with the body of a woman, the wings of a bird, and the legs of a lion. According to Greek mythology, the Sphinx, protagonist of many ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptian and of Mesopotamia, asked a fatal riddle to anyone who wished to enter the city of Thebes. Last but not least, the centaurs, half-man and half-horse creatures, with an enraged and grumpy personality, embodying the vices and virtues of the human being.

Animal representation develops over the course of the following centuries with the Middle Ages, when animals embodied different aspects of human nature. We are speaking of, for instance, the famous example of the three wild beasts in The Divine Comedy by Dante: the lion, symbol of arrogance, the she-wolf, symbol of greed, and the leopard, symbol of lust. We find mentions of these three wild beasts, symbols of sin hindering the way towards salvation, in the Medieval bestiary. The bestiaries are manuscripts with miniatures and descriptions of animals, often enriched by fantastic details and inevitable moral comments. Each animal had its equivalent in human characteristics, both positive and negative.

Amazing is the physiognomic tradition that combines human and animal features: look at De Humana Physiognomonia, the book by Della Porta. Another whimsical artwork of the same years if the one by the Maestro della Fertilità dell’Uovo, an extremely interesting and curious author: in his works, animals and humans live side by side.

In the modern epoch, the moralizing aspect makes room for objective realism. Animals begin appearing next to still lifes and genre scenes of different types. Remarkable in this period are hunting scenes with the preys. Animals become the real protagonists of the artworks in all their beauty and pride, though they could never fully detach from the long tradition of symbols and morals they have been associated with for centuries. Look for example at Dalí’s L’Ouroboros or Sartorio’s The Tiger. Georges Braque and Rafael Alberti, instead, favored a more abstractionist style in their turtle and horse.


Explore Wallector’s website for many other animal artworks!

Cats, dogs, horses, goats, pigs, tigers, birds, fish: which one is your spirit animal?