Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Why on Earth did 17th Century Dutch painter Emanuel de Witte repeatedly depict dogs pissing on columns inside of churches?
August 21, 2008 11:36 PM   Subscribe

Why on Earth did 17th Century Dutch painter Emanuel de Witte repeatedly depict dogs pissing on columns inside of churches?

Wandering blissfully through the Dutch and Flemish galleries in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC I came across Emanuel de Witte's The Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam which the NGA describes thusly on its website: "It is one of his most imposing works, due to its unusually large scale and the dramatic view down the nave of a church. It is boldly executed, with dramatic light effects streaming across the composition. Its well-conceived figures, including a funeral procession, a mother nursing a baby near a freshly dug tomb, and a dog relieving itself, are symbolic of life and death and enliven the space."

Now, I get the symbolism of the tomb and breastfeeding, but the dog pissing on a column? Now, I would have just left it alone as a goofball oddity if a cursory Google search hadn't uncovered two other dogs pissing on columns in two different paintings, Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft and Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam. Now, I feel compelled to point out that de Witte often painted dogs inside churches who weren't urinating (one random example).

What was he going on about with the pissing dogs? Surely this has caught someone else's eye, there must be some scholarship. Can you point me to some de Witte experts discussing it?

Is this a common motif? Have painters, through the ages, had dogs piss in sacred spaces? I mean, besides editorial cartoonists. Is this well known in art history?

So, basically... what the hell is going on here?
posted by Kattullus to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oops! The "one random example" link was supposed to go here.
posted by Kattullus at 11:37 PM on August 21, 2008


This book says that "there are dogs in all of de Witte's architectural interiors" and that "One dog pisses against a pillar in the Oude Kerk in Delft. But that is all right. Dogs piss."

Another uses these and other paintings from France and the Low Countries as evidence that dogs in that era "routinely accompanied their owners to church."
posted by Knappster at 11:56 PM on August 21, 2008


In school when I was a kid history teachers told us that in general in Medieval Europe people themselves weren't all that inhibited about relieving themselves indoors. (I realize the 17th century is well after the Medieval period, but perhaps the casual attitude persisted.)
posted by XMLicious at 1:05 AM on August 22, 2008


It was explained to me by a curator in Virginia as having been used (mostly in political drawings, but the first example I saw was in a painting similar to, but definitely not any of, these) as a deliberate symbol of mockery and/or reminder of the earthy bodily functions that must persist despite human attempts to elevate the mind or spirit. Deliberate or not, it's apparently just common enough that she had a name to give it, but it's been ten years and google can't jog my memory.

Will send off an email, because this is now going to bother me until I find it out again.
posted by notquitemaryann at 1:41 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


According to a dutch museum newspaper, The metropolitan thinks it 'probably signifies that mundane matter, even in the body of the church, is nothing compared to the spiritual world that the building represents.' The author however, blames 'cross-cultural misunderstandings' and notes that the 17th century Dutch were a lot less pious than 21st century Americans. But he calls it a stretch to think that the dog 'takes a piss off the church'.
All in all, I think Emanuel used his artistic license to create a double meaning, knowing very well it'd pop up one day on AskMe.
For me, another reason to visit the Oude Kerk.
posted by Psychnic at 2:13 AM on August 22, 2008


The most famous example is Rembrandt's etching, The Good Samaritan at the Inn, in which a shitting dog appears very prominently in the foreground. According to the Met Museum site, it 'adds a note of everyday reality to the biblical scene' -- or as Auden famously put it:

even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.


Another interpretation, of course, would be that it was just a reflection of real life -- there really were dogs all over the place, doing their doggy things. Many churches in the seventeenth century employed dog-whippers to keep the dogs away, and the well-known painting of Old St Paul's in London shows a dog-whipper in action, lifting his stick to chase a dog away while other people try to concentrate on the sermon. There is a poem by a seventeenth-century clergyman, writing to his parishioners, which goes as follows:

The churchyard is a sacred place.
Who pisseth there, is void of grace.


Which gives you a pretty good idea of what went on in seventeenth-century churchyards. However, I suspect there may be more to it than that, and that pissing dogs in seventeenth-century paintings may -- at least in some cases -- have been intended as an ironic commentary on the action. A search of Dutch emblem books and satirical prints would probably turn up other examples. If I find any I'll post them here.
posted by verstegan at 2:20 AM on August 22, 2008 [8 favorites]


The imagery of pissing dogs is something that persisted into the eighteenth-century - see this blog. Commenters there were just as mystified, unfortunately.
posted by greycap at 3:53 AM on August 22, 2008


It also reminds me of a passage in Samuel Pepys's diary in which he accompanies Montagu to escort Charles II from mainland Europe back to England. While in a rowing boat with the king, the king's dog pisses/takes a shit on the floor of the boat. Pepys is amused and reflects that even the king is only human if his dog makes a mess everywhere. If that's an example of how contemporaries interpreted this kind of thing, it perhaps suggests (as per notquitemaryann's comment) that it was symbolic of the fact that even the most important or spiritual things are bounded by physical functions like pissing.
posted by greycap at 4:15 AM on August 22, 2008


I would imagine that it's most likely, as others have said, a reminder of the mundane and everyday. If you think about art from this period (and earlier) there are so many examples of the 'Memento Mori' (Remember that you are mortal) and this seems to fit in to this way of thinking, namely that one should not forget the everyday. There's also quite likely the element of humor involved here too, which should never be overlooked. Of course these are just guesses and I am not an art historian.
posted by ob at 5:23 AM on August 22, 2008


It's important to note that these churches were built as Catholic churches but had become Protestant during the Reformation. In the Netherlands in 1566, an event called the Beeldenstorm (Iconoclasm, see wiki article) took place, during which Calvinist religious reformers destroyed most statuary, wall frescoes etc. in the churches, since the reformers opposed the accumulation of riches in the churches as well as the whole idea of sainthood and prayer to/through saints. So the churches were stripped and later whitewashed, which created the pristine white interiors depicted in these paintings. The pissing dog can be taken as the artist's affirmation that however beautiful the building may be, there is nothing sacred about it; it should not be worshiped for its beauty; it is dust and will return to dust.

And indeed the churches were used for many non-religious purposes, including as a convenient passage from one street to another for both people and dogs, and for such things as mending sails and fishing nets where a large open space was convenient.

As a side note, the pissing dog is not entirely unrelated to a present-day icon, the ubiquitous pickup truck decal of the cartoon character Calvin (who was named after the religious reformer) pissing on a variety of logos. [link goes to prior Metafilter post on this meme.)
posted by beagle at 6:06 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm afraid that the book Best in Show: The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today weighs in on this. It cites the same paintings and even points out that Rembrandt's The Good Samaritan has a dog defecating in the foreground.

What do they say? They call it an "unsolved problem."
posted by vacapinta at 6:19 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oops. I quoted the wrong book, although the sentiment is the same. Here's a fuller quote:

"Thus the problem of interpreting the meaning of individual dogs that appear in Dutch and Flemish 17th century art is not easily solved. Dogs are commonplace animals that were a part of everyday life in the Netherlands for several centuries but their appearance...has created vexing problems of interpretation"

posted by vacapinta at 6:48 AM on August 22, 2008


In the Dutch emblem tradition, dogs were a symbol of obedience. See this extract from a review in the Art Bulletin, 1985 (via JSTOR; subscription required):

In an article that appeared after the publication of Durantini's book, Bedaux convincingly demonstrated that the presence of well-trained animals in Dutch 17th-century portraits and genre paintings is intended as a metaphor for children who are being raised properly. Bedaux did not discuss the presence and meaning of poorly-trained animals in Dutch painting, but they seem to be an important symbolic component of several pictures .. A dog licking a pot functions as an antithesis to a well-bred one in an Otto van Veen emblem that is symbolic of bad versus good training.

Saenredam's painting of The Interior of the Buurkerk at Utrecht (1644) shows a boy teaching a dog to stand on its hind legs, which is interpreted as 'an emblem of obedience and the capacity to learn'. So the pissing dogs in the other paintings may symbolise disobedience. What the artist may be saying is that humans, like dogs, are gross and sensual by nature but can be raised to higher things.
posted by verstegan at 8:19 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


How bizarre that you would bring up Prince Charles' dog, greycap. I was trying to remember which Charles was associated with a particular spaniel, and he was the one!

The two pissing dogs in Kattullus' two links both appear to be King Charles spaniels. In an article on a related breed, Wikipedia says:

... the older King Charles Spaniel of the Restoration. This breed was loved by King Charles the second of England. He passed a law that they were allowed in parliament.[citation needed]

The Dutch in the 17th century weren't too pleased with King Charles II:

1660: Charles II returns to England from Holland and is restored to the throne.

1665: Outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

1672: Outbreak of the Third Dutch War.


So I'd say these pissing dogs were meant to be vicious swipes against the English king and parliament....

Except that the date of composition of the first is said to be 1650 or 1652 (the second is given as 1677).

I'd guess, however, that this spaniel was associated with Charles I as well, who was on very bad terms with the Dutch, although the first Anglo-Dutch war actually started under Cromwell in 1651 after a peace delegation to Holland was harassed by a pro-war faction there.
posted by jamjam at 10:13 AM on August 22, 2008


While I'm not very good at recognizing dog breeds I'm nearly positive that the dog in the painting in the NGA isn't a King Charles Spaniel. It looked like a whippet of some sort. The only reproduction I've found of The Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam is this and in it the dog just kind of looks like a blur. I might swing by the NGA today if I have time and snap a picture of the dog.

Not to disparage the King Charles association but while it my explain at least one of the pictures it doesn't account for the whole phenomenon.
posted by Kattullus at 10:41 AM on August 22, 2008


The association of spaniels with King Charles relates to Charles II, and I think as a name it was coined only after the seventeenth century. So that would tend to rule out the association, particularly given that the Anglo-Dutch wars started during the Commonwealth. I think verstegan has it in the reference to emblem books, which were extremely influential on Dutch art in the seventeenth century. (They were also influential later via that source in England, which would explain their adoption eg by Hogarth and other satirists in the eighteenth century).

For what it's worth - really just because it's a fun story - here is the full extract from Pepys I mentioned above. It's for 25 May 1660.

I spoke with the Duke of York about business, who called me Pepys by name, and upon my desire did promise me his future favour. Great expectation of the King’s making some Knights, but there was none. About noon (though the brigantine that Beale made was there ready to carry him) yet he would go in my Lord’s barge with the two Dukes. Our Captain steered, and my Lord went along bare with him. I went, and Mr. Mansell, and one of the King’s footmen, with a dog that the King loved (which shit in the boat, which made us laugh, and me think that a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are), in a boat by ourselves, and so got on shore when the King did.
posted by greycap at 11:36 AM on August 22, 2008


The association of spaniels with King Charles relates to Charles II, and I think as a name it was coined only after the seventeenth century. So that would tend to rule out the association

As I mentioned above that I suspected, these spaniels are also apparently associated with Charles I. The Wikipedia article on Cavalier King Charles Spaniels goes on to state:

Some centuries later, Toy Spaniels became popular as pets, especially as pets of the royal family. In fact, the King Charles Spaniel was so named because a Blenheim-coated spaniel was the children's pet in the household of Charles I. King Charles II went so far as to issue a decree that the King Charles Spaniel could not be forbidden entrance to any public place, including the Houses of Parliament.

The Britannica Online article (behind a pay wall; snippet from a Google page) on the breed says Charles the First's grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, liked them:

It was favoured by Mary, Queen of Scots, King Charles II (after whom it was named the King Charles spaniel), and Queen Victoria, as well as...
posted by jamjam at 2:08 PM on August 22, 2008


Sounds sort of like the caganer, the little pooping man in nativity scenes in Catalunya.
posted by footnote at 5:31 PM on August 22, 2008


I'm familiar with the painting in the National Gallery, I think. If I recall, the painting depicts more than just the dog urinating in the church, but also many people doing many non-sacred things. Considering that the painting was made shortly after the Spanish occupation of the Low Countries ended, and the predilection of the northern Europeans to go against Catholicism, when I saw it, I took it to represent profanities and disrespect for the sanctity of the church.
posted by Dave Faris at 8:26 PM on August 22, 2008


I was at the National Gallery today and found another dutch painting with a dog peeing and thought I'd post it here. The zoom doesn't work for me but you can see it doing it against a pole in front of the church. It's by Jan van der Heyden and from 1660.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 10:54 AM on September 18, 2008


Huh... well, then it was a popular theme among the Dutch masters, dogs pissing. Thanks's for that, lucia__is__dada.
posted by Kattullus at 11:43 AM on September 18, 2008


Oh, and in the van der Heyden that lucia__is__dada linked to there's another dog attacking a beggar in the lower left corner. What's with all those unruly dogs!
posted by Kattullus at 11:52 AM on September 18, 2008


« Older Help me go from PHP to VB.net....   |  [pedestrian-filter] According ... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.