What a piece of work is man…The paragon of animals.

(William Shakespeare)

All the world is a Zoo. A flimsy curtain of culture separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, yet part of this culture is a series of parallels drawn between the two, in legends, fables and visual arts.
From the earliest cave paintings of bisons and deer to Damien Hirst’s Away From the Flock (the famous 1994 sheep preserved in formaldehyde) artists have considered animals interesting and mysterious subjects, to be represented in painting, sculptures and installations.

Animal metaphors are a direct and powerful method of exploring our relationship with another part of nature. In Western culture, animal symbolism is multi-layered, with roots that can be found in mythology, the Bible or local legends. The gods of ancient Greeks and Romans had a habit of metamorphosing into other creatures in order to seduce or defeat humans – and unsurprisingly that action has inspired many artists. Many representations of animals as metaphors for human personalities are unflattering, emphasising the distance between (good) humans and other mammals, but also the complex relationship between the two worlds. At times they are used as shorthand for the immediate characteristics: the fox is sly, the snake is treacherous, the dog is a symbol of fidelity, the wolf suggests cruelty, the pig – gluttony.

Man’s Best Friends

Big cats, horses, deep sea creatures, peacocks: so beautifully designed by nature, have inspired artists to immortalise them on canvas, or in bronze. Stubbs painting of Whistlejacket is a pure portrait, featuring on a plain background a free, unfettered, noble individual. The horse is caught in movement, his front legs in the air, his head turned slightly towards the viewer with an intelligent gaze.

Like horses, dogs have been represented alone or, more often, alongside humans in almost all artistic movements, from Roman mosaics of domestic scenes to today’s beloved pooch. Portraiture flourished in the neoclassical age, and many portraits of the time, focusing on the powerful and the privileged, feature pets. Dogs turned into accessories, symbols of wealth and self-esteem, like in Gainsborough’ portraits (Mr and Mrs Hallett, Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews), while in Fragonard’s rococo scenes young women dressed in pink play with very small dogs - here to represent a life of leisure and idleness.

During this period horses, dogs and falcons feature alongside their humans as attributes: wealth, nobility and game killed by gentlemen for sport.

Famous animal painter Sir Edwin Henry Landseer had a little fun painting a bloodhound and a terrier as a parody of a traditional Dutch portrait and calling it Dignity and Impudence (1839). The winner of the cuteness competition is, without doubt, the loveable kitten, star of thousands of Instagram images. But Pablo Picasso saw the dark, cruel side of the domestic feline. The painter was not fond of the luxury cat, purring on a velvet sofa; he preferred the free cats, roaming the streets, hunting for food. Cat Catching a Bird (1939) pictures such a fierce animal, holding the half-devoured bird in its jaws, both creatures struggling for survival.

In Frida Kahlo Self Portrait with Monkeys, the four spider monkeys complement the composition with Frida’s black hair, on a background of exotic vegetation. In Mexican mythology, like in Christian iconography, monkeys symbolise lust, but in this painting they embrace her affectionately, their expression of surprised innocence a reference to the children she never had.

Decoding the Tale

12th Century scholars provided a helpful guide to the meaning of animal images with the publication of the Bestiary. The illustrated guide contained descriptions of over a hundred creatures, large and small, and their moral associations.

Christian iconography features fabulous beasts and domestic animals, each with their symbolic role well defined. Ichthys, the two arches intersecting to look like the profile of a fish, has been the sign for Christ since the first century. Derived from Greek name for fish, and also the acronym for the phrase Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour, the stylised fish has been a symbol of Jesus and Christianity. Fish appears in the Bible several times, as food, as miracle, as a huge monster that swallowed Jonah. The eagle’s superior eyesight enables it to spot and catch fish from a great height. In medieval allegory, the eagle represents Christ, who catches souls as the eagle catches fish – from a great moral height. Innocent and harmless, but often sacrificed, the lamb is also a symbol of Christ, and Christ’s death, sacrificed for the salvation of all. In a society where many people are not literate, symbols are an effective tool for communicating.

While some correlation between animal and human characteristic are consistent (snake is always evil, peacock signifies eternal life) other animals represent several, sometimes contradictory virtues or vices. Man’s best friend, a symbol of loyalty and fidelity (like in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait) may later signify treachery and aggression. In The Last Supper (1544) Titian paired Judas with a dog to symbolise his betrayal of Jesus.

Others are less obvious. The fur of the stoat, in its white winter coat when it is called an ermine was traditionally used to line the cloaks and caps of the nobility, and it featured in heraldry. Legend has it the animal would rather die than stain its pure white fur and it went on to symbolise the uncompromising integrity with which one would protect his honour. Such is the meaning we read in Queen Elisabeth I portrait by Nicholas Hilliard (1585). But why is less-than-chaste Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Ludovico Duke of Milan, holding an ermine in the portrait by Leonardo da Vinci? Is it irony? Or did he see her as an innocent and pure teenager?

If I could fly

Omens for good, omens for ill, birds represent freedom, nobility, fertility, bravery; life, hope, change. Peace. With some 10,000 species, birds can symbolise a wide range of ideas. This sub-genre of art has attracted many painters, some occasionally (Van Gogh, Monet) while others dedicated their life work to the depiction of feathered friends. From the large eagles and falcons (sign of wealth and nobility) to the humble dove (the Holy Spirit), from the elegant swan (love and romance, grace, devotion) to the goldfinch (enthusiasm, joy, persistence), in every sphere of artistic media, birds represent our highest aspirations.
Constantin Brancusi explored the theme of bird in flight in a series of exquisite sculptures. The relationship between the hard material – marble or bronze – and air surrounding it, the way it divides space is more interesting to the sculptor than wings and feathers. The essence of the bird, its raison d’être is the action, the movement. The freedom of a bird in flight, like the freedom of wild animals, had always inspired awe, a desire to emulate and maybe envy.