Slavering Beasts and Furry Friends at the Scottish National Gallery, by Sarah Button

xxxPhotos by author.

Personally, I don’t know that much about art. It’s pretty and it’s expensive — that’s as far as my knowledge goes. So when I was asked this morning what I thought the lapdog in the corner of a painting symbolised, my mind drew a complete blank.

As far as preconceptions go, this event seemed pretty straightforward — a chance to stroll around the Scottish National Gallery and look intelligent while staring at paintings. In a way it was exactly that, just with a lot more tough questions to answer.

The main focus of the event was to look at the way in which animals are portrayed in paintings, and why. A highlight was when we were looking at a painting of a witch, who was flanked by various ‘demonic’ animals who served as her familiars; one of which was a chicken. It’s safe to say that I’ll never view poultry in the same way again, and the words ‘demonic chicken’ will always make me laugh.

What is the difference between a real and a symbolic animal? Well for starters, most animals represent something: the lion is power, the dog is faithfulness, and poultry is fertility. One technique that artists used to show more than one characteristic in an animal was to create composite ones: two or more creatures moulded together to create something new. One artist used this to create a dragon, but ended up with a creature that had the body of a lizard but the face of a human; in other words hilarious-looking (for proof, see the photo).

It’s safe to say that I left the Gallery knowing a lot more about the very strange practices and beliefs of times gone by, and I just hope that I’ll be able to use that knowledge sometime in the future.

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