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Saturday, 11 June 2011

A sixteenth century dinosaur

At first glance, the strange animal pictured on the left looks like a small theropod dinosaur -- or at any rate, a rather cartoony caricature of one. Admittedly it has some undinosaurlike features such as horns and long droopy ears, and it doesn't appear to have any forelimbs... but with its thick tail, birdlike legs and reptilian head it looks more like a dinosaur than anything else!

The problem is, whatever the animal was meant to be when it was painted, it can't have been a dinosaur. The picture dates from the sixteenth century, long before dinosaurs were first reconstructed from fossilized bones. It's a detail taken from a large painting by Marten de Vos (1532 - 1603), now in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, which depicts The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

According to legend, Saint Anthony was tempted in the desert -- not by Satan or some other solitary tempter, but by a whole host of demons of various shapes and forms. This has made the subject a perennial favourite with artists, since it allows their imagination to run free in the depiction of the demons! In the 15th and 16th centuries it was common for demons to be depicted as fanciful chimeras, or combinations of several different creatures. Even Michelangelo got in on the act! The detail on the right, taken from a copy of a German engraving that Michelangelo painted when he was twelve or thirteen, shows Anthony being hit over the head by something that looks like a cross between a fish, a hedgehog and an elephant!

So what about Marten de Vos's "dinosaur"? He probably meant it to be a demonic cross between some kind of bird and a couple of other animals (though I can't imagine what)... and the result just happens to look like a dinosaur! Whatever it is, it's a long way from being the weirdest thing in the painting -- the full version is shown below.

[For similar posts, see Sixteenth century alien and Goya's Shadow.]

10 comments:

Peni R. Griffin said...

What were all those critters trying to tempt him to do, anyway? Break a vow of peaceful noncompliance? Laugh? Scream and run like a small child?

Anonymous said...

These creatures are just attempts by the artist to illustrate supposed evils that exist

Andrew said...

I think the demons are trying to dissuade Anthony from leading a life of quiet contemplation in the desert. This involves other forms of coercion (such as violence, fear and insanity, not to mention just being a nuisance) as well as the usual temptations of sex and money. It's likely that many of the creatures would have had symbolic meanings that were obvious to the audience at the time.

Wolcott Wheeler said...

I think it resembles a basilisk or a cockatrice, legendary medieval monsters--part rooster, part venomous serpent--that represented evil.

Andrew said...

Thanks Wolcott - having Googled "basilisk" and "cockatrice" I think you may be right. By its nature, a cross between a fowl and a snake is always going to look a bit like a dinosaur -- it's just that this one does more than most!

Anonymous said...

I don't see the basilisk / cockatrice likeness. The only saurian examples on GIS are modern interpretations. Medieval representations invariably have a cocks head, wings or feathers and none of them have the typical theropod construction.

Even if we stipulate for the sake of argument that this is a basilisk / cockatrice, that advances more questions than it answers. Why would a "mythical" medieval creature look like a theropod? With all of the tales of dragons and now similarities between theropods and basilisks, could the people of the middle ages have known more about dinosaurs than is now generally accepted?

Andrew said...

Hmm... the creature could be described as having the head and tail of a snake, and the body and legs of a large fowl. If someone in the Middle Ages had come across a fossilized theropod (and why shouldn't they have done?) then they might have interpreted it in exactly that way. Maybe that's where the legend of the basilisk and/or cockatrice comes from.

Anonymous said...

The ears and horns make me think it might be part fowl part goat.

Forteana said...

Just looking at the pic I was thinking this was from the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Have you seen that one? It's also pretty wild. But not as wild as his Garden of Earthly Delights. Anyway, interesting post and interesting painting. I was unaware of it.

Andrew said...

Thanks - I'm a long-time fan of Bosch, and I've seen both the Garden of Earthly Delights in Madrid and the version of his Temptation of Saint Anthony in Brussels. The Brussels museum also has a Temptation of Saint Anthony by Salvador Dali.