The Symbolic Meanings of Animals During the Renaissance

The ermine in Leonardo's portrait symbolizes both the lady and her lover.
... Images

Animal images have been metaphors in art since ancient times. During the Renaissance period, artists used animals to illustrate their own religious and mythological narratives, often using older symbolism but changing their earlier meanings. One single animal, such as an ermine, could represent different, often contradictory, meanings.

1 The Ermine's Purity

The ermine has symbolized purity and chastity since ancient times. The enduring belief was that this small mammal would rather die than soil its white coat. In Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine,” the subject is Cecilia Galleriano, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan and Leonardo’s patron. The portrait is an allegory on this relationship, rather than chastity, as Cecilia had already borne Ludovico a son. The ermine in the picture may represent Ludovico who had been appointed to the chivalric Order of the Ermine by the King of Naples. The animal also implies a pun on her surname as the Greek for “ermine” is “galee.”

2 A Wise Bird's Soul

Bird images during the Renaissance represented sacrifice, resurrection, the soul and death. The goldfinch is one of the most frequently painted birds in Renaissance art and also symbolizes the healing of the sick and redemption. In Christian tradition, when a goldfinch or a robin plucked a thorn from the crucified head of Christ, a drop of blood fell on its face or breast, leaving a red patch. This theme was used by Rafael in his “Madonna of the Goldfinch.” Albrecht Durer used a parrot to symbolize wisdom and discernment as well as the virgin birth of Christ. Joos van Cleve used a caged bird in his “St. Jerome in his Study” to symbolize that the soul is caged inside the mortal body.

3 Evil Serpents and Mystic Lizards

The Christian iconography of the Renaissance period showed snakes and other reptiles as symbols of evil. This is the meaning of the serpent in Albrecht Durer’s “Fall of Man,” also called “Adam and Eve.” However, a lizard can embody a mystical vision in Lorenzo Lotto’s “Portrait of a Gentleman in His Study.” The lizard stares at the sun in the same manner as it stares at the man in the portrait. The reptile also represents the power of rejuvenation because its severed tail can grow back.

4 Faithful, Seductive Dogs

Dogs appear as background motifs, companions and status symbols in Renaissance art. They also acquire a double symbolism of fidelity and seductiveness. Jan van Eyck’s “Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife” shows a dog standing between the newly married couple as a symbol of fidelity, to God as well as to each other. In Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” the dog is also a symbol of marital fidelity in a painting that is an erotic allegory of marriage. Titian also uses a dog as a symbol of female vanity and seduction in his “Danae and the Shower of Gold.”

5 Docile White Rabbits

In European pre-Christian tradition, rabbits were associated with fertility, cycles of the moon and the ability to change gender. These pagan connections were reviled by the Christian church between the 11th and 13th centuries. However, by the Renaissance, there was a belief that rabbits could conceive without a male. They became a symbol of purity and the virgin birth of Christ. A white rabbit at the feet of the Madonna in Titian’s “Madonna of the Rabbit” represents her triumph over lust as well as the submission, gentleness and docility that the Catholic Church wished to encourage in its faithful.

Based in London, Maria Kielmas worked in earthquake engineering and international petroleum exploration before entering journalism in 1986. She has written for the "Financial Times," "Barron's," "Christian Science Monitor," and "Rheinischer Merkur" as well as specialist publications on the energy and financial industries and the European, Middle Eastern, African, Asian and Latin American regions. She has a Bachelor of Science in physics and geology from Manchester University and a Master of Science in marine geotechnics from the University of Wales School of Ocean Sciences.