...for readers who love animals, and animal lovers who read!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Image, Text, and Dogs, Part 1

by Sheila Webster Boneham

Today's post is the first of two about how images and text about our best friends have been combined through the ages. This post is adapted from a paper I wrote while working on my MFA in Creative Writing in the Stonecoast Program/University of Southern Maine. Special thanks to my friend and mentor Cait Johnson, who insisted I find the project that would "light me up." This is part of that project.  ~ Sheila

Words and pictures can work together to communicate
more powerfully than either alone.”
                                       – William Albert Allard

People have been combining text and illustration in books and their precursors since nearly two thousand years B.C.E. and dogs have been pictured in such multimedia presentations since at least 3500 B.C.E. Egyptian paintings, stelae, and reliefs frequently depict dogs in domestic and hunting scenes and mention them in accompanying writings. Some written texts are pithy, to say the least. Many Roman villas, for instance, announced the presence of guard dogs with mosaics in their entryways, the most famous of which is found in the “House of the Tragic Poet” in Pompeii. Typical of these mosaics, this piece from the first century C.E. shows a lunging mastiff-type dog over the warning Cave Canem (Beware of the Dog). Brief, but the message is fully realized. 

Cave Canem mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii.

Literary and folk narrative cycles such as the Sanskrit Panchatantra and its derivatives, including the Arabic Kalila wa Dimna and Greek Aesop’s Fables, have been illustrated since they first appeared on papyrus scrolls, and medieval and modern editions from South Asia and the Middle East are often illustrated with exquisite miniature paintings. As the stories have migrated to Western languages and cultures, illustration has remained a staple of the tradition, even moving into the realm of popular culture. One of the best-known stories from these collections, for instance, is about a greedy dog who, crossing a bridge with a bone in his mouth, sees another dog in the water. When he tries to grab the other dog’s bone, he loses his own. A quick Internet search for images to illustrate the story brings up a range of works, from Moghul miniatures to contemporary cartoons. My favorite features Mickey Mouse’s friend Pluto as the greedy dog.

Illustration from a volume of Sufi teacher Rumi’s teachings.
Here he speaks to “Dogs in the Marketplace,” human and canine.

Illuminated and illustrated texts became high art in Western Europe beginning in late antiquity and continuing through the Middle Ages and beyond. One of the most beautiful examples is the ninth-century Irish Book of Kells, a stunning blend of calligraphic text and visual art in the form of full-page illustrations and elaborate intra-textual ornamentation. Like many books of this period in Europe, the Book of Kells is a religious text comprising the Four Gospels of the New Testament along with commentary. However, art reflects life, and many of the images are of everyday subjects, including dogs. 

Illumination from the Book of Kells, showing a dog

Dogs in Medieval and Renaissance art occupy a liminal place, appearing as both themselves – someone’s dog – and as symbols of such contradictory traits as love, fidelity, promiscuity, filth, and saintliness. In many paintings dogs appear to be “incidental background motifs, part of a hunting scene, religious, mythological, or allegorical composition” or accessories in portraits, according to art historian Edgar Peters Bowron. I would argue, though, that while it is true that sometimes a dog is just a dog, such images nevertheless carry both subliminal and conscious messages associating the people in them with presumed canine virtues. 

We still see dogs used in this way in modern print advertising and portraiture. Politicians and celebrities often cuddle up to dogs in publicity shots – who doesn’t trust a dog lover? Products that have nothing to do with animals, such as RCA Victor audio devices and Wolfschmidt vodka, use dogs in their advertisements. Even the type of dog used affects the immediate message – the terrier is a lively, faithful friend, the Borzoi evokes exotic elegance – but the core message is “you can trust us, we’re faithful and true.”

Many artists, though, employed dogs, although their intended meanings are not always clear, and as a "dog person" I don't always agree with the scholarly views. For example, Dutch artist Jan van Eyck included a dog in the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (1530), a painting filled with visual metaphors and signs, ostensibly to signify marital fidelity, although art historian Craig Harbison has argued that the meaning of the dog is ambivalent and may as well stand for lust and the couple’s desire for children. 

Fidelity to its master or mistress seems a logical meaning, but domestic dogs (unlike wolves) are notoriously promiscuous in their reproductive behaviors. The little dog stands at the wife’s hem facing away from the husband. In a paternalistic society in which female virginity and fidelity were guarded as the only sure guarantee of paternity, I read the position and presence of the dog as suggesting the wife’s potential to behave “like a bitch” in a very literal, sexual sense. Perhaps, as with much communication then and now, the message is intentionally mixed. 


Part 2 can be found HERE.