Renaissance Dogs

“Death of Procris”, Piero di Cosimo, ca 1500-1510

From his baptistery doors in Florence we can see that Lorenzo Ghiberti did not love dogs as much as Piero Di Cosimo. Lorenzo’s gilded bronze dogs are beautiful, just not rendered quite so lovingly, or sympathetically as Piero’s.

Here’s Piero’s painting “Death of Procris”. One thing it’s famous for is that flagrantly forlorn hound on the right, who appears to be experiencing human-like grief over the death of the woman. The picture has at times been hailed as the first instance where a dog is depicted experiencing emotions we humans can relate to. The subject comes from a Greek myth. Procris has just died. The sad tragedy is that her husband killed her in a hunting accident. Piero managed show the signs of a profound emotional bond between beast and human. Now, that’s cross species empathy.

By contrast, Ghiberti’s dogs on the baptistery doors in Florence display a diabolical presence in the scene known as “Jacob Steals Esau’s Blessing.” We’re not supposed to feel any sense of tail wagging love. The dogs appear at Jacob’s heels, and directly below a serpent in the background. Evil and deception is afoot. Jacob goes before his blind father pretending to be the elder brother in scheme to take the father’s blessing intended for his brother, Esau. Apparently this is part of a plot secure the tidy inheritance that was due Esau. It’s a complicated story anyone can read in Genesis 27, but it’s enough to say Ghiberti’s dogs appear almost reptilian in their expressions as they stand in the shadow of evil-doing.

Detail of “Jacob Steals Esau’s Blessing”, by Lorenzo Ghiberti, on the Baptistery doors, Florence, a copy of 1425-1457 original. Photo by Roy Scarbrough

Now, let’s do give Ghiberti some of his due. This door panel and the others are gorgeous. The Jacob panel is particularly striking in depicting perspectival depth in those receding arche. Look at what he did in creating that illusion of space, in less than an inch.

And lets keep in mind Ghiberti is of a generation that lived several decades before what could be a more enlightened time with respect to how people related to animals. Contemporaries of Piero seem more apt to hold more convivial attitudes towards dogs. More on that later.


4 responses to “Renaissance Dogs

  1. Interesting post! What a fun topic. I’ve thought a little bit about the dog in Renaissance art too, particularly in Pietro Lorenzetti’s depiction of “The Last Supper.” (If you’re interested, you can read some of my thoughts here: Your post has made me wonder if the inclusion of the dog in the Jacob scene might contain some symbolism (or even perhaps an indirect reference to the New Testament passages mentioned in my post).

    • Thanks! We certainly can have some more fun with the topic. It’s a good question you raised in your Lorenzetti dog post at Alberti’s Window. Biblical texts give dogs a bad rap. There’s that quote from proverbs about dogs returning to their vomit like fools to their folly. Along those lines, I’ve been wondering to what extent the unfavorable depiction of dogs and other animals represent early Christian disapproval of animistic cults. Is this something we can see changing in the Renaissance?

  2. Really interesting post! Despite studying art history for years, I’m a modern art girl and am just starting to dive deeper into the Renaissance.

  3. Hi, Ashley. I’m also a modernist. The really fun thing is discovering elements of the past that continue to be in play in contemporary art in some wonderfully time-warped way.

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