We’re combining art and history once again to link magnificent gargoyle sculptures with the history of the symbolism of the figures they most commonly depict.
Today we’ll be looking into the symbolism of the dog.
Narbonne Cathedral (France).
Like we saw when we analysed the figure of the lion, the dog also appears in bestiaries and literature as well as in other works where you can discover both its symbolism and its positive and negative powers. As you already know, the way animals are portrayed usually refers to these powers and in many cases they serve to symbolise human virtues and faults.
An example of loyalty and vigilance, the dog is seen as the protector of the home and the people who live there. There’s the shepherd dog, which guards its flock and protects it against wolves, just like the priest watches over and protects his faithful flock from the devil.
They can be a symbol of loyalty, like Tobias’s dog or Saint Roch’s dog, which took bread to the saint and licked his wounds. The dog is also a symbol of loyalty in marriage, appearing in many portraits at the feet or on the lap of a married woman.
In portrayals of Saint Dominic of Guzmán, a dog carrying a lighted torch in its mouth is often shown with the saint. According to the legend, when his mother was pregnant with him, she dreamt that a little dog leapt from her womb carrying a flaming torch in its mouth. The woman made a pilgrimage to the abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos to ask for an explanation of her dream. The meaning she was given was that her son would light the flame of Christ in the world through pilgrimage, and in gratitude she named her son Dominic (Domingo in Spanish). White and black dogs – the colours of the Dominican monks’ habit – have sometimes been used as a symbol of this Order: Domini canes (dogs of the Lord).
Continuing with this section on art and history, Bianciotto describes his work Bestiaires du Moyen Âge. Pierre de Beauvais, Guillaume le Clerc, Richard de Fournival, Brunetto Latini, Jean Corbechon, on the subject of Medieval bestiaries. In it he talks about the dog and its symbolism:
There are various species of dogs: some are used to hunt big game; others birds; others guard homes, and this is because they love their masters.
There was once a time when a powerful man was captured by his enemies and his dogs went with him, this is the kind of love a dog is capable of.
The dog heals its wounds by licking them with its tongue. The dog that heals its wound with its tongue are the priests who “lick” our wounds, or rather our sins, with their tongue, or rather with their rebukes at confession.
It is the kind of animal that eats what it vomits. The dog that eats its own vomit is a symbol for those who repeat the sins they have confessed to earlier.
If a dog crosses a water course with bread or meat in its mouth and sees its image in the water, it imagines there is a another piece there, opens its mouth to pick it up and loses the piece it already had. The dog that drops what it already had in the water because it covets the shadow it sees, represents ignorant people and men stripped of reason who covet things they do not know and abandon what they already have, so they do not obtain what they covet and completely lose what they abandoned.
The fact that a dog with a wounded belly heals itself of the internal harm, means that the word of God judges the secret thoughts of men’s hearts. If the dog eats little, it means that man must avoid overeating or drinking to excess. There is no easier way for the devil to harass the Christian than through the gluttony of the mouth.
There is also literature on the negative symbolism of dogs. Eusebius of Caesarea (3rd to 4th century) in his Ecclesiastical History, compares the dog to the devil, basing his view on the Cerberus. Although the Middle Ages recovered the symbolic meaning of the dog as man’s loyal friend, some Medieval texts portray it as the symbol of some vices and sins, such as envy, and in the Libro de los Enxiemplos (14th century) it is shown as the personification of hypocrites, flatterers and ingrates. Similarly, various sources set out the idea that, in order to be able to make contact more easily with man, the devil sometimes takes on the form of a dog, his loyal and inseparable companion.
After looking at the particular symbolism of the dog, we’ll show you some pictures of gargoyles showing how dogs were depicted. A kind of tribute to “man’s best friend”, his most loyal companion, always loving and protective towards his master.
Gargoyles of Belgium
Brussels Cathedral (Belgium).
Gargoyles of France
Narbonne Cathedral (France).
Augustinians Museum in Toulouse (France).
Gargoyles of Germany
Gargoyles of Portugal
Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon (Portugal).
Gargoyles of Spain
La Fresneda (Teruel, Spain).
The Collegiate church of San Antolín in Medina del Campo (Valladolid, Spain).
Gargoyles in other countries
Shanghái Cathedral (China).
Cork Cathedral (Ireland).
Milan Cathedral (Italy). Photo: Lola Custodio.
Bestiaires du Moyen Âge. Pierre de Beauvais, Guillaume le Clerc, Richard de Fournival, Brunetto Latini, Jean Corbechon (mis en français moderne et présentés par G. Bianciotto, Série “Moyen Âge”, dirigée par D. Régnier-Bohler), París, Editions Stock, 1992.
FERGUSON, G., Signs & symbols in Christian Art, New York, Oxford University Press, 1961.
MATEO GÓMEZ, I., Temas profanos en la escultura gótica española. Las sillerías de coro, Madrid, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas. Instituto Diego Velázquez, 1979.
REBOLD BENTON, J., Holy Terrors. Gargoyles on medieval buildings, New York, Abbeville Press, 1997.
Doctora en Historia del Arte. Investigadora especializada en el estudio de las gárgolas.