Artistic expression has been present roughly since the first physically-modern men wandered the earth, and will likely never disappear from human cultural practices. Across all eras and continents, artists have used painting, sculpting and myriad other techniques to produce representations of generic daily life, broad zeitgeists and internal emotions or curiosities. Whether rendered with lifelike accuracy or in an unearthly, surreal composition, one would be hard pressed to encounter a work of art that does not communicate some sort of inherent significance to its viewers. While attempting to construe its understanding of the cosmos through creative means, mankind has often included animals in its iconography.
I think studying human relations with, and attitudes towards, non-human creatures is a worthwhile task that can be completed from any number of angles. It’s a line of questioning that can tell us much about who we are. Yet taking an art historical approach allows for the visual demonstration of the deep infatuation modern peoples’ ancestors harboured for animals, and can define and measure changes in many areas— including man’s valuation of animal life in comparison to his own, and the usefulness assigned to animals for survival, entertainment and companionship.
Join me on a five-part safari through the ages, as I analyse imagery that runs the chronological gamut to reveal humankind’s fluctuating glorification and demonisation of animals, and emphasise just how interconnected the history and bonds between people and other species are.
Chapter Three: Da Vinci’s Renaissance
Inevitably, invaders came, great cities fell and the imperial Roman territories were disbanded. Centuries lacking in great innovations followed, darker times of unquestioned religious belief, martyrdom, superstition and crippling plague.
Yet the bright spark of humanity endured. Beginning in Italy during the 14th century CE, a great Renaissance took root, literally meaning a “rebirth.” It was an intellect-fueled era of renewed curiosity and discovery, especially in the scientific, geographic, militaristic and artistic fields. Renaissance thinkers aligned themselves with humanistic ideas, giving man some of his natural status back in the face of the fire, brimstone and eternal condemnation to purgatory preached by an overbearing Catholic Church. Lost values of classical antiquity were revived, along with long overlooked literary works, histories and architectural feats. Conversely, the original Renaissance men tended to dissociate themselves from treatises written in the Middle Ages, a time not so bleak and drab as we might now suspect, but spiritually contemplative and feudal enough to be regarded negatively by minds that finally saw the light.
Nevertheless, extremely important continuities with previous, unenlightened ages still existed, particularly belief in the ultimate hierarchy, the Great Chain of Being. Despite the unprecedented advancements and open minded qualities of this age, non-human species of flora and fauna were still adamantly believed to rank pretty low in terms of universal importance. Mankind, with its reason, social constructs and salvageable immortal souls continued to reign supreme over the lesser creatures of the earth.
Fortunately, one remarkable man active during the Italian Renaissance, possibly the most skilled polymath to ever grace this planet, began to question the innate superiority of humans over the rest of the animal kingdom. His name is a familiar one— Leonardo da Vinci, a matchless artist, inventor and inquisitive mind. Long before such ideas were widespread, let alone fashionable, he defended the rights of animals. It is a repeated theme in da Vinci’s chaotic notebooks, in which he remarked humanity is not “king of the animals” but merely “king of the beasts”, that is, simply a more powerful beast than the rest, and he went on to rage that man uses his power to solely raise animals for slaughter.
This assertion that humans are animals, without any particular God-given right to dine on or subjugate fellow creatures, was totally at odds with the culture of his age. Da Vinci was also a vegetarian, at least in the latter portion of his life. He wrote in his famous quizzical backwards script, “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.” He even penned admiringly, “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.”
Although only thirteen or fourteen paintings by the hand of da Vinci are known to exist, rare canvases wrought with techniques that continue to evade duplication, many of his sketches, cartoons and anatomical studies on sheets of paper still survive in museums and private collections today— and animals appear to be a consistent and favourite theme of the master. One sketch by da Vinci from circa 1503-1504 perfectly exemplifies the artist’s keen interest in animal species and his belief in their equality to the human race.
Rendered in ink and red chalk, the drawing has been titled Expressions of Fury in Horses, a Lion and a Man, and is housed along with many other da Vinci doodles in the Royal Palaces, Residences and Art Collection currently stewarded by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The study was originally completed as part of da Vinci’s preparations for a battle scene mural, which was left incomplete like many of his commissions and later destroyed, yet gave free reign to his interest in the depiction of animals and strong emotion. The cranium of three vastly different species are inked beautifully and quite realistically, dappled in light and shade, and portrayed in an identical profile view with exceedingly similar countenances. Here da Vinci investigated the manner in which analogous muscles in each species stretch and pull to create like expressions of anguish, as he recorded in a note, “Their brows raised and knit, the skin above their brows furrowed with pain, the sides of the nose with wrinkles going in an arch from the nostrils to the eyes, the nostrils drawn up, the lips arched to show the upper teeth, and the teeth apart as if crying out in lamentation.”
Although da Vinci’s art and theories concerning animals made him an eccentric during his own time— by refuting the rigidity of the Great Chain of Being— his journals and drawings represent the beginning of a positive shift in human-animal relations. By carefully examining anatomical components shared by man and other species, da Vinci demonstrated a fondness and respect for animals that ran deeper than an appreciation of other creatures’ ability to provide leather wineskins and juicy muttonchops. Such benign curiosity and methodical scientific observation was beyond rare in ages leading up to da Vinci’s own, and it was an early catalyst for the recognition of animals’ unique and inherent worth, rather than their value as the tools and playthings of humankind.
Next week, learn how Charles Darwin’s own once outlandish ideas about our links to other creatures would lead to the welcoming of animals into Victorian homes as cute-as-a-button companions…
Sources: Brooklyn College English Department, “General Characteristics of the Renaissance”, adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature
Jonathon Jones, “Leonardo da Vinci Unleashed: the Animal Rights Activist Within the Artist”, Jonathon Jones on Art Blog, The Gaurdian, 30 November 2011
Melanie Light, “Leonardo da Vinci: Leonardo’s Animals Part 1 of 2”, PetLvr Community Blog and Forum, 13 December 2006
Martin Clayton, Leonardo da Vinci: the Divine and the Grotesque: drawings from the Royal Collection, New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002