Changing functions of the canine image in Venetian religious paintings of the sixteenth century

Simona Cohen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper demonstrates how Venetian Renaissance artists perpetuated the symbolic contexts of animal symbolism, which they disguised under the veil of genre and narrative in religious art. Venetian painters of the Cinquecento shared an unprecedented penchant for depicting animals in general, and dogs in particular, in their secular and religious iconography. A dramatic pattern of change is demonstrated in their approach to canine iconography, Titian consistently adopted the negative moralistic connotations of the canine image, which had been transmitted to the Renaissance by medieval literature and art. It is demonstrated, by contrast, that the significance of dogs in themes of sacred art, as depicted by Tintoretto, are related to classical sources illustrating positive conceptions of the canine character and faculties. In literature of the sixteenth century the dog was increasingly cast in an authoritative role, attesting to miraculous and supernatural events by virtue of its superior perception or exemplifying the ideal of rationality. Classical sources also provided prototypes for canine epitaphs and laudatory poems in sixteenth century writings. While writers of the period praised canine cleverness, rationality, alertness, loyalty, vigilance, memory, prudence, and vision, Venetian artists were depicting the virtuous canine in allegorical contexts. By the late 1540s and 1550s, when Tintoretto began introducing canine images into his religious paintings, many of the relevant sources on animals had become available through the Venetian printing press.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)277-286
Number of pages10
StatePublished - 2009


  • Animals
  • Moralisms
  • Religious painting
  • Renaissance iconography
  • Symbolism
  • Tintoretto
  • Titian
  • Venetian painting


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