Nowhere in the bible does it mention the presence of dogs at the birth of Jesus, and, as far as I am aware, they are not mentioned in any of the apocryphal sources either – but as I haven’t read them all, I could easily be wrong. They are here as an assumption, the assumption being that wealthy people – such as kings – will travel with their dogs. This was, indeed, commonly the case. When Pope Innocent III summoned bishops to the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, he pointed out that their retinues should not include birds and hunting dogs – it was simply not appropriate. When Borso d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, went to Rome to visit the Pope some 555 years later, he travelled with 700 men, 120 of whom were on horseback, and they took their dogs and cheetahs. But then, he wasn’t a bishop on the way to reform the church. And he came away with a promotion, returning home as the first Duke of Ferrara. The Three Kings in Gentile da Fabriano’s Strozzi Altarpiece (1423) – the main panel of which illustrates the Adoration of the Magi – do travel with dogs and cheetahs, as do the Magi in Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in the chapel of the Medici Palace in Florence painted three decades later. In our painting we only have two dogs – no cheetahs – so maybe it’s not so grand. However, although I’m not a dog person by any stretch of the imagination, I am fairly sure this is not a sheep dog.
It’s probably a hunting dog, and, true to its doggy instincts, it’s having a go at a bone. It could be a symbol of Fidelity – dogs often are – but here it doesn’t need to be. It is half-way in between the two plants we saw yesterday and is included for at least two reasons – maybe three: 1) to enhance the status of the people in the painting we haven’t seen yet 2) to communicate the idea of ‘Faith’ – although I doubt this dog’s name is ‘Fido’ (Latin for ‘I trust/believe/confide in’) and 3) to tell us that the man who painted it knows about art. Why would I think no. 3) is the case? Well, because it is not his dog – it is a dog he has borrowed from somebody else – namely Martin Schongauer. Compare and contrast:
Yes, they are facing the opposite way, which is odd. It is something you would expect if the print were made from the painting, but the print dates from around 1470-75, roughly forty years before the painting, so maybe our artist is just playing a game. If he is, it is quite a sophisticated one, something along the lines of ‘This dog is taken from a print, which reverses the imagery, so when Schongauer engraved the plate, this is what he would have seen’. It’s quite a leap of the imagination. Of course, it may have been swapped round simply because it looks better in the composition this way. The other difference is that our painted dog has a bone. As with so many other things in this painting, it might be symbolic – looking forward to Easter, and Christ’s death, as Christmas inevitably does – but it might just be a dog doing what dogs do. This is the image that Schongauer’s dog comes from, an Adoration of the Magi:
I don’t know whether our artist wasn’t very good at dogs, or didn’t have any dogs to hand to use as models – or was just particularly keen to showcase his knowledge of the work of the men who had inspired him most – but the other dog is taken from a print as well. Compare and contrast these two:
The orientation is the same – it is just the tail that is different – and both dogs occupy similar positions in their respective images. This one is by Albrecht Dürer, and is taken from his St Eustace:
St Eustace was out hunting – or rather, the Roman general Placidus was out hunting – when he saw a crucifix between a stag’s antlers. The stag spoke to him – with Jesus’s voice – and this inspired the general to convert to Christianity, and to be baptised, taking the name of Eustace. It’s Dürer’s largest print, and was hugely influential: the inclusion of one of the dogs in our painting is just one example of that.
As well as reasons 1) – 3) above, we can add reason 4) for the inclusion of this sheepish looking dog – it allows the artist to show yet more textures and shapes to the painting, and so keeps us looking at it more, thus keeping us involved and helping to convey its message. And there are plenty more materials, textures and forms to look at before we get to Jesus.