Deer as a Symbol in Art: Not Only a Christmas Decoration
My carriage! My carriage!Santa Claus is the most famous mythical reindeer herder today. Before him, Hittite, Sumerian and Shinto deities drove reindeer teams. The Celts believed that the deer was the main animal in the magical herds of the gods. Even among the northern Slavs, noble and strong deers were harnessed to the chariot of Perun, the supreme god of thunder, and not horses or dogs.
In East Asia, the beemed deer was associated with long life and prosperity. In China, the white deer is especially revered as a symbol of Shou Xing, the god of longevity. And the word "deer" itself is related with "wealth" in the Chinese language — it is consonant with the word "abundance". In Japan, there is a similar deity — Jurōjin, (in the illustration — the work by an unknown artist, 1902), also responsible for longevity. It is believed that the prototype for both gods was the Taoist hermit, who in the 11th century, according to legend, was looking for the elixir of immortality and found it. In his wanderings, the sage is accompanied by a crane, a turtle and a deer.
Innocence and curse of the godsWith their noble tread, the deers amazed the ancient Greeks, who firmly inscribed this animal into their mythology. The deer is a constant companion of the divine and innocent hunter Artemis (in Roman mythology — Diana), the goal of the almost impossible mission of Hercules (the myth of the fast Kerinean doe for the hero to catch), but most importantly — the punishment of Actaeon. The self-confident youth dared to look up at the goddess when she was swimming naked! For this, Diana turned Actaeon into her favourite animal, a deer, and he was torn to pieces by his own dogs. The myth of the young hunter who paid for his insolence has become a popular subject in the visual arts, and not only in ancient art.
This Greek red-figure vase (mid-4th century BC) depicts the beginning of the transformation of Actaeon. The boy already has horns. In the same form, the bloodthirsty plot was transferred to the bas-reliefs of Greek temples and Etruscan sarcophagi. Note that it was important to preserve the partial "humanity" of Actaeon for edification: it is useless for a mortal, earthly creature to dare to look at the divine.
In his version of Diana and Actaeon (1518), Lucas Cranach the Elder paints the deer with only human legs. The fight with the dogs doesn’t look so tragic here. Whereas the number of Diana’s naked companions increased dramatically.
Thirst for knowledge of GodSpeaking of the Church, that was where the deer firmly settled in the symbolic and allegorical range! Just do not confuse it with the Lamb of God. The symbol of the human soul striving to know God, in this role, the deer appeared in early Christian art in the first centuries AD.
It has excellent hearing, it is careful and prudentThe reputation of the purity, consolidated by the company of virgin Diana, and the natural ability of the timid deer to be on the alert all the time made it a wonderful companion of several allegories at once — Hearing and Prudence. Since the Middle Ages, Prudence was often depicted as a beautiful lady (sometimes two-faced) with a mirror, a snake and a deer. Unfortunately, the deer disappeared from iconography and became its rare, variable element.
Hans Baldung, a German artist and student of Dürer, painted Prudence as a part of the Music and Prudence diptych (1529). This work has a double
Symbolism is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-1880s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway, and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if an artist came to quiet despair, but he was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.
From saint to alcohol through the centuriesEven in the early Middle Ages, the deer became a faithful companion of several Christian saints: Julian, Eustace (Eustathius Placidus in Orthodoxy), Hubert and Aegidius. Interestingly, Eustace and Hubert acquired the animal symbol in the same way.
The legends about these saints describe similar circumstances. During the hunt, they almost shot a forest dweller, but between its horns they saw a crucifix. Eustace, a Roman general, then converted to Christianity, and the once dissolute Hubert took the right path and devoted himself to spreading Christian teachings. Both saints are considered the patrons of hunters, and it is extremely difficult to understand which of them is depicted in a stained glass window, an icon or a painting.
And the public loved the image of a deer with a crucifix so much that it became very popular. In 1503, Albrecht Dürer portrayed one of the Paumgartner brothers as Saint Eustace. The donators (in fact, the Paumgartners) commissioned the artist to paint a church altarpiece. On the side shutters, Dürer depicted the donators: one as George the Victorious, the other as St. Eustace with the deer common in that time. Moreover, both were dressed in the chivalrous fashion of their time.
Prestige, agility, passionAnother "eternal motive" was deer hunting. This laborious occupation due to the fearfulness of the game has long been considered the lot of exclusively noble persons.
In the early 18th century, the German animal painter and printmaker Johann Elias Ridinger became the main hailer of the merits of privileged hunters. He was commissioned to paint the countless numbers of the captured deers. The artist painted the horns especially carefully, as they were considered the most honourable trophy.
The symbol of pride and strength: the deer has become a symbol of a separate countryAmong all the animals that the Georgian primitivist of the early 20th century Niko Pirosmani loved to paint, the deer was the most common in his works.
For the artist, it was a collective image, the embodiment of pride, dignity, nobility. Apparently, the blood of his ancestors spoke in the artist: the cult of the deer was widespread among Georgians from time immemorial, and its image eventually became one of the Georgian symbols.
In The Deer painting (2003) by Vinogradov-Dubossarsky (the main artistic tandem of Russia in the 1990s), defenseless animals in the autumn rain can please the eye, or they can revive the image of the generation of the 2000s.