14 Dogs in the Identity Formation and Moral Teaching Offered in Some Fifteenth-Century Flemish Manuscript Miniatures

In: Our Dogs, Our Selves
John B. Friedman
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The principle on which collections such as Aesop’s Fables and their medieval progeny is founded is that by examining animals behaving like people, often badly, some aspects of human behavior can be called into question and ameliorated. Generally these are not domestic animals, but more usually wild ones: foxes, crows, wolves, and the like. A few fables do portray domestic animals, such as the story in which mice or rats bell a cat. But oddly, one of the most ubiquitous of domestic animals, the dog, is not chief among the actors in fables. Yet the dog has a long and illustrious history in medieval culture as a model for human behavior to be avoided or emulated. This chapter examines a number of instances in which medieval miniature painters used familiar dogs in interior scenes to serve as counterpoint to or heighten certain human traits, both desirable and undesirable, in courtly manuscript painting.

In trying to understand the significance of dogs in courtly medieval manuscript illustration, it is vital to look at context. In a complex triptych for example, a dog can on one wing be a tormentor of Christ and on the other symbolize loyalty. This chapter explores some of the different contexts for the dog in medieval art with a focus on its symbolism of civility and loyalty in courtly domestic interior scenes. The focus is primarily on Flemish manuscript painting of the later fifteenth century, but includes the appearance of the dog in medieval calendars as well to show how it comes to occupy such an important place in interior spaces and how, with the rise of Flemish realism, it goes along with plate, textiles such as bedding and hangings, and other things to affirm the values of the class for which the manuscripts were commissioned.

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Our Dogs, Our Selves

Dogs in Medieval and Early Modern Art, Literature, and Society

Series:  Art and Material Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Volume: 6