Monday, August 26, 2013

A Synergy of Image, Text, and Dogs, Part 2

Dogs Days continue with part 2 of two posts about how texts and images featuring dogs have been combined since human beings began to do such things. You can find Part 1 here. Thanks for being here - comments welcome!  ~ Sheila

A Synergy of Image, Text, and Dogs, Part 2

by Sheila Webster Boneham

Medieval and Renaissance artists often depicted saints in the company of faithful dogs. Saint Roch (Rocco) is a case in point. Legend holds that Saint Roch was born into a wealthy family in 1295 but gave away his earthly possessions twenty years later when both his parents died, and soon became known for miraculous cures. When he himself became ill with an unspecified “plague,” he was banished from human society. A dog, it is said, found him dying in the woods, licked his wounds, and brought him bread. The healer was healed. As the patron of dogs and of people who love or work with them, Saint Roch is often portrayed with a dog at his side or licking his wounds. Even today his image holds power and appears on medals given in many traditional “Blessing” ceremonies. Originally meant to secure safety for hunters, especially riders following hounds, such Blessings are now commonly held for pets of all kinds in religious and secular ceremonies around the world, and in my experience, dogs are far better represented at such events than are other animals.

Again, though, darker aspects of humanity are frequently embodied in images of dogs and in language. The unflinching loyalty that makes dogs “faithful” in human eyes also makes them appear to some as cringing cowards. For stray and feral dogs, survival often depends on scrounging for food in garbage dumps and other unsavory places, and malnourished, parasite-ridden dogs have been used to symbolize depravity, cowardice, thievery, and other negative human traits. Some Medieval and Renaissance artists were obvious in their use of the dog as a negative symbol. Titian, for one, is said to have included toy dogs in many paintings of female nudes to symbolize female seductiveness and infidelity, and Flemish artists often used dogs to denote treachery and persecution. In modern American culture, these negative associations are primarily linguistic; calling a person a dog, bitch, son of a bitch, cur, or pup is rarely well received. Images of dogs used to provoke negative responses seem to involve specific breeds rather than dogs as a species, and which breeds are held in negative public regard changes over time. 

As secular works emerged during the Middle Ages, and as Europe drifted toward the Renaissance, interest grew in understanding the natural world. Books on animals appeared, usually with an emphasis on husbandry and hunting. The fourteenth century Livre de chasse (Book of the Hunt) by Gaston III, also known as Gaston Phoebus, is perhaps the most famous and most lavish of medieval hunting books. The work, which is “organized in four parts and written in a clear narrative voice” (“Gaston Phoebus”), covers a range of topics, from training and handling hunting dogs to their selection and care to methods and equipment for hunting various types of game. According to the Phebus Historical Foundation, it was a book ahead of its time, “present[ing] an impressive knowledge of the natural sciences—long before the age of modern empirical science—with detailed observations on the various animal species” (“Gaston Phoebus”). Like its counterparts today, Gaston’s Livre de chasse is illustrated with exquisitely detailed miniatures, and it is easy to imagine the book’s select few readers scrutinizing the dogs in the pictures while their own dogs slept at their sides.

From The Book of the Hunt by Gaston Phoebus. I love this
illustration - the images could be from a modern book on canine
care, or from someone's website or social media page!

Invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century spurred a publishing surge. Although religious texts dominated early press publications in Europe, by the following century tales of strange places and creatures brought home by explorers had captured the popular imagination, and “scientific” bestiaries and herbals became ever more popular. Woodcuts were used for illustrations in early printed works, but during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, technological advances gave rise to better methods of printing illustrations. Eighteenth-century printers developed copperplate etching and engraving methods that further improved the quality and detail of printed images. 

Illustration from Robinson Crusoe,
1893 Czech edition
As books became affordable and literacy in Western countries increased, secular fiction and nonfiction books became more popular. It seems natural that our best friend the dog should appear in many of them, whether in a minor or major role. In fact, illustrations sometimes elevate dogs to larger roles than they enjoy in the texts of certain books. In Robinson Crusoe (originally published in 1719), for instance, Daniel Defoe barely mentions his hero’s dog, but illustrated editions of the book often include the dog in at least one image (Britton). Other classics such as Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz feature dogs as prominent if not central characters, and show them in cover and internal illustrations. Novels with dogs as central characters, including such classics as Beautiful Joe (1893) by Margaret Marshall Saunders and the Sunnybrook Collie books (1919-1940s) by Albert Payson Terhune, first appeared in the nineteenth century, and judging by the sixteen thousand titles listed under “Fiction and literature: dogs” on, the genre remains alive and well.

Nonfiction books about dogs, both narrative and informational, are also published by the hundreds each year, and most of them are generously illustrated. Although line drawings are still used, most illustrations these days are photographs selected not only for their ability to convey information (“here’s what a well-trimmed toenail looks like” or “here’s a portrait of Skippy”) but also for their emotional appeal. Readers like images that tug at their heartstrings. Even highly regarded narrative nonfiction books in which dogs are central, such as Mark Doty’s Dog Years, include at least a few photographs. 


And then, of course, there are books like these! Available from your local bookseller and online. Personally autographed copies available here

Equal parts mystery and dog appreciation, with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure, this second case for Janet and her pals (Drop Dead on Recall, 2012) is accessible to fans of all three." ~ Kirkus Review

"The intricate plot [of Drop Dead on Recall] has plenty of surprises, red herrings, and interesting details about animals. Fans of Laurien Berenson or Susan Conant will especially enjoy this pet-centered mystery." — Amy Alessio for Booklist.

Rescue Matters! How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals "...should be in the library of any serious animal lover and any library catering to them."   Midwest Book Review


  1. My favorite breed of dogs is the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Sheila, and I've always loved looking at the Old Masters artwork from England's Restoration Era since so many of the courtiers depicted are holding the forerunners of Cavaliers.

    1. Yes, Linda! And it's really interesting to see how the breeds have changed!