Posted on 16 Comments

Cows in Art (part 2)


Queen Cow and black and white cow painting in oils
Queen Cow

Cattle (cows and bulls) occupied a very important place in the Ancient world in both a practical and a religious sense. They continued to do so during pre-Reformation Christian era, although they were no longer offered as a religious sacrifice but still carried the symbolic meaning of sacrifice.

In terms of figurative art, before the thirteenth century, the sort of ox you were most likely to see in a Medieval manuscript was one with wings. He was usually depicted near a man with a halo around his head either writing or holding a manuscript. This man is Luke, one of the four evangelists, who were credited with writing one of the gospels of the New Testament. The winged ox was meant to not only represent the Luke, Evangelist, but also an aspect of the nature of Christ, as well as of the virtues required of a Christian for salvation. In this case, the ox was a figure of sacrifice, service, and strength.


Later the ox became a regular feature of Nativity scenes. St. Francis of Assisi, that well-known animal lover, is credited with staging the first nativity scene in 1223. He did this so that Christians who could not afford the dangerous and expensive pilgrimage to the Holy land, could venerate Christ. Apparently St. Francis set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” It was a massive hit. Within a couple of centuries, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe and is still with us today. It also became an incredibly popular subject for religious paintings. The ox and the donkey, were a very successful double act, first of all living creatures the to venerate Christ.


We get glimpses of the non-religious importance of cattle as a source of food in the Bayeux Tapestry, which shows Sussex cattle being “requisitioned” by the Norman invaders before the Battle of Hastings in the 11th century. Norman servants have taken the rounded up livestock and are slaughtering it. The little boy with his dog might be tugging on the axeman’s tunic to implore him not to slay his family’s ox.

Bayeux Tapestry

Medieval book of hours were Christian devotional books made for lay people.  They usually contained a collection of texts, prayers and psalms and were richly illustrated, providing us with an important record of life in the 15th and 16th centuries.

2 book of hours 141, seasonal activities.jpg
The changing seasons in a Medieval Book of Hours


Art underwent a crisis with the coming of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Artists in Protestant areas of Northern Europe painted far fewer religious subjects for public display.  Instead, many of these artists countries diversified into secular forms of art like history painting, landscapes, portraiture, and still life. Thus, the cow and ox began to appear as a sort of status symbols in rich patrons’ paintings.

Pieter Aertsen, Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt, 1551
The Bull, Paulus Potter, 1647, The Hague.

Or as part of a bucolic landscape, with pretty milkmaids; it’s religious significance now pretty much abandoned.


When the agricultural revolution got underway in the 18th century Britain, cattle were part of the drive to make farming more efficient and scientific. Cattle were now seen as products of this new way of framing.  Paintings were a celebration of the success of selective breeding. Thus we see enormous musclebound animals with tiny heads and legs! They were now status symbols.


During the 1820s and 1830s, fine art was dominated by history paintings (with subjects that were political, historical, or religious). John Constable, the realist English painter, led a quiet revolution against this fashion.  He worked directly from nature “en plein air” , painting many full-scale preliminary sketches of his every-day landscapes to test the composition in advance of finished pictures. Cattle appeared as part of his real English landscapes.

John Constable

Constable’s work was embraced in France, where he sold more than in his native England and inspired the Barbizon school who included artists like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau, Constant Troyon and Jean-François Millet.



French artist Rosa Bonheur was also influenced by the work of the Barbizon school. She was a very successful animalière (painter of animals) and sculptor, known for her artistic realism. Her cattle are noble and beautiful.


Ploughing in the Nivernais

During the late 1860s, the Barbizon painters attracted the attention of a younger generation of French artists studying in Paris, including Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille. In the 1870s those artists, among others, developed Impressionism and practiced plein air painting. Cattle also appear in a number of the paintings of Dutch and Breton landscapes by Gauguin and Van Gogh.


Interesting Paul Gauguin, references the religious significance of cattle in his painting “Christmas Night”.

Christmas Night

The Iberian Peninsula,  Spain and Portugal, unlike the rest of Europe, never given up the tradition of bullfighting. The Spanish artist Pablo Picasso often used bulls as a metaphor in his art. Depending on its context, they have been interpreted in various ways: as a representation of the Spanish people; as a comment on fascism and brutality; as a symbol of virility; or as a reflection of Picasso’s self-image.



Piccaso in Bull Mask


Pablo Picasso, “The Bull”, lithographs, 1945

Pop Art (such as Andy Wharhol’s screen prints) and advertising for products such as mass-produced cheese triangles (Laughing Cow – La Vache qui rit) are almost indistinguishable. Here the cow is a commodity.


British artist, Damien Hirst uses real dead cattle in his work. His Turner Prize-winning “Mother and Child Divided” installation featured the bisected corpses of a cow and calf in closed tanks, preserved by formaldehyde solution. These works look like large-scale version of the gruesome things I saw in jars my biology lab at school. This is no accident. They are suspended in the same liquid, formaldehyde.

Hirst was reportedly advised to use alcohol to protect his artworks. He chose to use formaldehyde instead for its hazardous, skin-burning properties. The exhibition summary on Tate’s website states that Hirst was attracted to the compound because “if you breathe it in it chokes you and it looks like water”. He claimed to be using it to “communicate an idea”, rather than as a preservative.

Damien Hirst

I find his work rather upsetting. I initially wondered if these works were a comment on the cruelty of modern factory farming and mass production of meat and milk. Dairy cattle are separated from their young to produce milk for humans. It seems, however, instead he is drawing on the religious symbolism of the arrangement. Hirst who attended a Catholic school is drawing on religious iconography. Instead of the joyful unity of mother and baby, which the traditional image celebrates, he presents a “mother and child not only forever separated from one another, but also fatally severed in themselves”.

I don’t know if Hirst has spent time watching cattle. A few days ago I spent an hour or so watching a small group of free-range heifers with their calves on Pennard Golf Course. One cow spent a good 5 minutes washing her son who then licked her back as if to say, thanks Mum. The bond between them was palpable.

Mother and Child Divided.jpg
Mother and Child Divided

Damien Hirst has attracted much controversy for his use of dead animals in his artwork. It has been claimed that he may have been responsible for the deaths of as many as a million creatures in the name of art! The toll has included 13 sheep; seven Holstein Friesian cows; five calves; four bulls; three baby horses; two pigs; one brown bear; one zebra; 27 sharks and 668 fish. Apparently, in 2012 more than 9,000 butterflies died during the 23-week exhibition In and Out of Love at the Tate Modern Gallery in London. The controversy does Hirst no harm as he’s said to be the world’s richest artist with a claimed personal fortune of around £215m.

I will end with an artist who, unlike Hirst, clearly loves animals and paints with tenderness and lightness of touch.  Benjamin Björklund is a self-taught Swedish painter who works in watercolors and oils and I love his work.




In last two thousand years, the cow has gone from a symbol of sacrifice, service and strength, to a commodity and a status symbol and most recently in the work of Hirst, to something whose dismembered carcass is designed to shock and repulse viewers.  I personally prefer the sensitivity of the work of artists like Björklund who recognises cows as individuals and as essentially gentle creatures or even the Medieval artists portrayed the Ox and the Donkey as reverent witnesses at the Nativity. However, I think I have to recognise that Hirst’s work is a comment on the violence that humans visit on the cow.

Posted on 17 Comments

Cows in Art (The Ancient World)

Well, here I go down another wormhole of History/ Art History. This time I have been pondering the place of the humble cow or ox in figurative art in History. It’s such along one I have had to divide it into two parts. It could easily be a book! It’s a very long history which is not surprising as humans have depended on cattle for their survival. Cattle have represented at different times such things as life, wealth, power and even the divine.

Man and cows, ox, oxen, cattle, go back a long, long way. People have been hunting, and more importantly from our point of view, painting bison and wild cattle in Europe for more than 17,000 years. I use the term “people” advisedly, as there is evidence, based on measuring hand prints, that the first figurative artists could have been women. Men may well have hunted these beasts but women would have been very familiar the anatomy of these beasts from cutting up their carcasses for food and clothing.

One of the largest animals in the “Hall of Bulls”, painted on the walls of a the Lascaux, caves in France, is a black bull. He is an incredible 5.2 metres (17 ft) long, making him the largest animal discovered so far in cave art.

Hall of Bulls
Hall of Bulls

There are many representations of cattle in prehistoric art in caves and on rock faces in Spain, India and Africa. Who knows what function these images served. were they meant to exert some sort of magical power over these animals? Were they a sort of prayer, or a pictorial shopping list for the gods?

If, wild cattle were important to prehistoric people, the domesticated version, were even more so. About 10,500 years ago, cattle were domesticated from as few as 80 wild oxen in southeast Turkey. These cattle could now be used for food and clothing but also as a beasts of burden, pulling ploughs and carts.  The Ancient Egyptians, who ruled Egypt over 5,000 years ago, used them in agriculture, for food, milk, leather, and also for sacrifice. These animals fulfilled dual practical and spiritual roles (as many animals did in Ancient Egypt).

Cattle for life


Cattle for the afterlife

They came to be considered so important that many Egyptian gods were considered to have the form of cattle, notable deities being Hathor, a very popular female god, Ptah (as the Apis Bull), Menthu (as the Bukha bull), and Atum-Ra (as the Mnevis Bull). The cow and bull are repeatedly represented in Egyptian figurative art, 2D and 3D, many bulls were also mummified.

Cattle had dual practical and spiritual role in the other Ancient Mediterranean agrarian societies too. The Egyptians, however, were unusual in honouring the female aspect of the animal through the worship of the goddess Hathor. She one of the most important and popular deities in Ancient Egypt, who personified the principles of love, beauty, music, dance, motherhood and joy.


Bulls were regularly sacrificed on altars in the ancient Greek religion, usually at an outdoor altar with hymn and prayer.


After the introduction of a metal coinage into ancient Greece, this method of exchange was commemorated by stamping the image of an ox on the new money; while the connexion between cattle and coin as symbols of wealth has left its mark on the languages of Europe, as is seen in the Latin word pecunia and the English “pecuniary,” derived from pecus, cattle.

Silver coin from C 4th B.C.E


The Greeks seem to have been very impressed by the strength and virility of the bull, worried by it even. I say this because a very famous Greeks/Cretian myth concerns a beautiful white bulls that King Minos cannot bear to have sacrificed, whom he saves only to have his wife also fall in love with the bull and later produce a bull/man hybrid baby, known as the Minotaur.


Theseus and the Minotaur

King Minos later had the Minotaur shut up in the “Labyrinth”,  an underground maze, and fed Athenian youths and maidens to him on a regular basis. That was, until Theseus, a prince from Athens, came and killed him and found his way out of the maze with the help of a ball of thread.

The Ancient Minoans also engaged in a spot of bull jumping, presumably before the ritual sacrifice of the animals. Again, this all seems tied up with virility and a conspicuous display of masculinity.

Bull Leaping

The Ancient Romans also sacrificed bulls for the well being of the people and the state and they are depicted in many bas reliefs.

The bull was also used a decorative motif in the mosaics that decorated the villas of wealthy Romans. Some of these designs show that bulls were also used as sport, in the gladiator’s arena.

There was a sacrificial element to these bloody games but also a punitive one too as “damnatio ad bestias” (damnation to the beasts) was reserved for military traitors, conquered foes, and convicted criminals bound for execution, which included those Christians accused of sedition and treason.  This is how early Christian saints, Perpetua and Felicity, were martyred in North Africa. They were sent to the amphitheatre and repeatedly gored and thrown by a bull before they were dispatched by a soldier’s sword.

The bull also inspired an instrument of torture that was also used on early Christains. The brazen bullbronze bull, or Sicilian bull, was originally designed in ancient Greece. It’s not clear if it really existed or was really good “fake news” made up to frighten people. The life-size bull was said to be made entirely out of bronze, hollow, with a door in one side. The condemned were locked inside the device, and a fire was set under it, heating the metal until the person inside was roasted to death. It was repudely used to kill several early Christians including Saint Eustace, with his wife and children, Saint Antipas and Pelagia of Tarsus.

Interesting, after all this maleness and display of masculinity, bull sacrifice, as taurobolium, also became connected with the worship of the Great Mother of the Gods, Magna Mater, from the mid-2nd century onwards.

330px-Autel-Lyon-CIL-XIII-1751 (1)
Three sides of a taurobolium altar, from Lugdunum (Lyon)

Another Roman cult, popular with soldiers, in which a sacrificial bull played a role was that of the 1st–4th century Mithraic Mysteries. In the so-called “tauroctony” artwork of that cult, and which appears in all its temples, the god Mithras is seen to slay a sacrificial bull.

Mithras sacrificing a bull

So, after all this blood and violence of the Greco-Romano world, it will probably come as something of a relief that my next post will explore the somewhat gentler world of the cow/bull in Medieval and Modern society and culture. The spiritual/virility/wealth aspect of the cow/bull continues to be explored. However, we are reminded of the continuing violence and brutality meted out towards, the cow/bull in the work of artists of like Picasso and Hirst.