The Vendramin Family (about 1540-45) by TitianThe National Gallery, London
Animals have been used in art as metaphors since ancient times. Pre-historic cave paintings often featured animals which were thought to inspire good luck during hunting or for religious purposes. But it was perhaps during the Renaissance period that artists began to use animals to illustrate their own religious and mythological meanings.
The inclusion of animals in paintings was often based on older symbolism, although these earlier meanings were often altered during the Renaissance to represent contemporary attitudes. Let’s take a closer look at some Renaissance masterpieces and see if we can spot the animals before working out what they might be supposed to represent.
Madonna of the Goldfinch (1505 - 1506) by Raffaello SanzioUffizi Gallery
Madonna of the Goldfinch - Rafael
Can you spot the goldfinch in Rafael's masterpiece? And what could it mean?
Images of birds often represented sacrifice, resurrection, the soul or death. The goldfinch was regularly used in Renaissance art and also symbolizes redemption and healing. It's all based on the biblical story when a goldfinch plucks a thorn from the crucified head of Christ, and a drop of blood falls on its head, leaving a red patch. Rafael uses this symbolism in his Madonna of the Goldfinch.
The Fall of Man (Adam and Eve) (1504) by Albrecht DürerMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
Fall of Man - Albrecht Durer
What might the serpent represent?
Snakes and other reptiles have often been used as symbols of evil, especially in the Christian iconography of the Renaissance era. In Albrecht Durer’s Fall of Man (also known as Adam and Eve), a snake is seen encouraging them to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, resulting in their banishment from the Garden of Eden. However, reptiles can also represents rejuvenation because they are able to regrow severed tails and limbs.
Lady with an Ermine (circa. 1489) by Leonardo da VinciThe National Museum in Krakow
Lady with an Ermine - Leonardo da Vinci
What could this small, furry mammal mean?
The ermine has been a symbol of purity and chastity since ancient times, with the belief that this small creature would rather die than soil its white coat. However, in this Da Vinci masterpiece, the ermine may be less to do with chastity, as the subject Cecilia Galleriano already had a son. The ermine may represent her lover, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, who had been appointed to the chivalric Order of the Ermine by the King of Naples.
Venus of Urbino (1538) by Tiziano VecellioUffizi Gallery
Venus of Urbino - Titian
Can you spot the sleeping dog? Do you know why it's there?
Dogs often appear as status symbols in Renaissance paintings - combined with a suggestion of fidelity or loyalty. In Titian’s Venus of Urbino, the dog is meant as a symbol of marital fidelity.
The Adoration of the Magi (c. 1440/1460) by Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo LippiNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC
The Adoration of the Magi - Fra Angelico & Fra Filippo Lippi
Can you spot the strutting peacock? What could it mean?
The majestic peacock became a symbol of immortality in Christian art. It all stemmed from the belief that its flesh never decayed, which is why it can be found in large numbers of Renaissance nativity scenes. It serves as a reminder of the Resurrection and eternal life. The peacock’s flamboyant tail is also associated with pride and vanity, although this tends to be used with other subject matter.
Adoration of the Trinity (Landauer Altar) (1511) by Albrecht DürerKunsthistorisches Museum Wien