Sunday, December 5, 2010

Power, Status, and Symbolism: A Final Look

It has been a few weeks since we first touched on representations of animals in medieval art, but I wanted to return to the topic one last time.  As JT notes, there is a tendency to use the rise of science and formal realism in the early modern period to paint religious allegory in art into a strictly medieval corner, as it were.  But just as the dawn of the modern era did not mark a complete break with traditional symbolism—allegory and “realism” in early-modern art are often anything but mutually exclusive—so, too, can the case be made for a certain level of continuity with regard to the way medieval and early modern people (or at least artists) conceived of certain animals and their relationships with humans.  For this post, I thought I’d comment on some thematic consistencies in art featuring animals, offering a few comparisons based on some images we’ve discussed in class.

I was particularly taken by the presentation of boar hunting in the Gaston Phoebus (1331-91) manuscript we studied, in part because of what seem to me to be striking similarities between Gaston’s boar hunt and one depicted by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) nearly 300 years later.  Velázquez’s La tela real (or The Royal Canvas, c. 1632-7; National Gallery, London) shows Philip IV of Spain and his retinue “hunting” wild boar within a large canvas enclosure.  

(Image courtesy of National Gallery, London, website, which provides a helpful zoom function with its online catalog entry for this painting)

The title of the Spanish painter’s work can be taken to stand for the physical enclosure in which the king hunts, aided by his servants and favorites (among them is the controversial Count-Duke of Olivares).  Conversely, the tela can be interpreted as the figurative buffer separating the king’s inner circle from the rest of society, a barrier between those on the “inside” and those left looking in.  For Velázquez, this truly is “everyone else,” a diverse cast of characters comprising much of the canvas’s foreground.  But the stations of the king and his company and the boundary line formed by the tela are not the only markers of status on display.  The exclusive activity taking place within the enclosure serves to underline the privileged standing of the participants.  The boar hunt, as evidenced by the Gaston Phoebus manuscript, was a complex and costly sport, and only a wealthy elite with access to auxiliary man and animal power (hounds and horses) could afford it.  

In this respect, little changes between the late fourteenth century and Velázquez’s time; the boar hunt is a luxury pursuit restricted to the nobility and kings during both periods.  And indeed, many of Gaston’s late-medieval methods would appear to still be in practice during the early seventeenth century: 

attendants move on foot and carry spears;

hounds are used to encircle and wear down the boar (in a manner reminiscent of picadors in modern bullfighting, who exhaust and prime the bull for the matador or, in this case, Philip);

the leader of the hunt and his closest companions ride on horseback and make the final kill; and the use of the enclosure itself seems to be a holdover from the earlier period. 

In the same way that hunting boar during the Middle Ages and early modern era denoted a certain level of wealth and status, birds of prey such as the falcon and eagle seem to have retained their significance as symbols of power long after the emperor Frederick II wrote De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, his treatise on falconry.  When we looked at a miniature from a copy of the treatise depicting Frederick seated on his throne, accompanied by one of his falcons, 

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I was reminded of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s (1780-1867) Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806; Musée de l'Armée, Paris).  

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Compositionally, the two images are remarkably similar, even if the bird depicted in Ingres’s painting is an eagle—and an eagle woven into a rug, at that—instead of a falcon.  From Rome to the founding of the United States to Mussolini’s Italy, the eagle has long been an emblem of high authority, and it was an especially important symbol for Napoleon, whose armies would carry bronze eagles into battle as a sign of the emperor (Rothenberg, 137).  Just as the inclusion of Frederick’s falcon in the miniature communicates both his prowess as a falconer and his regal standing, so is the figure of the eagle a vital component of Napoleon’s imperial symbolism, as much a part of his regalia as his splendid robes or crown.  In the case of both the falcon and the eagle, we see birds of prey being used to help create an iconic, totalizing image of a ruler’s authority, an artistic concept with demonstrable currency not only during the medieval period but in the centuries that followed.

There are many respects in which the art of the medieval and early modern eras varies significantly.  The comparisons I’ve made here are but two examples of thematic continuity in images depicting animals associated with wealth, status, and power spanning the two periods.  Nevertheless, I think it is important to remind ourselves that post-medieval artists did not do away with existing subject matter or traditional conceptions of those subjects simply because newer, more "realistic" techniques were becoming available to them.  The ways we think about animals and assign them meaning are rooted in long-standing cultural traditions and symbolic systems, and these patterns of thought and representation sometimes take centuries to change—if they ever change at all.


G. E. Rothenberg, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978).

1 comment:

  1. Very nice demonstration of the difference between "realism" as a form of "scientific" depiction and "realism" as simply another mode in which to practice symbolic representation. It makes me think of the continuity in another medium--writing--and the degree to which we may as historians have overstated the differences between the "medieval" and "modern" periods simply because the technology changed (manuscript to print). It is a modern (20th-century) habit to see technology as driving thought, but technology or, here, technical change (vanishing point perspective) does not necessarily mean social or symbolic change.