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Animal Symbolism in Fine Art and Antiques

Before humans roamed on the earth there were animals, who inhabited the ecosystems we now call home. Though species have come and gone, animals have remained integral to the human experience, either as domesticated pets or wild creatures we excitedly observe from a distance. Animal symbolism in fine art and antiques is a deeply ingrained practice that spans across cultures and centuries— representing insights into human beliefs, values and societal norms.

From ancient times to the 21st century, animals have been depicted as powerful symbols of fertility, purity, wisdom and more. Join us as we explore the rich history and cultural variations of animal symbolism in fine art, antiques and more.


Carved Black Jasper Bear By Andreas Von Zadora-Gerlof. Dated 1994. M.S. Rau.
 Carved Black Jasper Bear By Andreas Von Zadora-Gerlof. Dated 1994. M.S. Rau.

History of Animal Symbols

In the prehistoric cave of Lascaux in the South of France, stunning and well-preserved paintings of horses, aurochs (extinct wild cattle), deer and ibex (wild goats) were carefully created by a prehistoric artist approximately 17,000 years ago. Despite the passage of millennia, these remarkable artworks remain in pristine condition, drawing tourists daily who marvel at both the vast temporal distance and the enduring artistic vision. The animals, depicted with lifelike precision and a modern aesthetic, appear as if they could easily grace the walls of a preeminent art gallery today.

Ancient Egypt
Throughout all of human history, art and religion have intertwined deeply with the natural world. Depicted in art as embodiments of gods and goddesses, Ancient Egyptians used animals like the lion and ibis to symbolize divine attributes. For example, the jackal-headed Anubis represented embalming and the afterlife and the cat goddess Bastet symbolized fertility and protection. Animals were mummified and buried alongside pharaohs, underscoring their role as conduits between earthly and divine realms as well as their beloved status as furry friends since the beginning.

Ancient Greece
In Greek mythology, animals also served as symbols representing gods. The eagle symbolized Zeus's authority, while the owl embodied Athena's wisdom. Creatures like Pegasus and Cerberus were companions to heroes, serving as guardians in mythical quests. Animals also played integral roles in Greek rituals, connecting devotees with the divine.

Native American Peoples
Native American cultures deeply integrated animal symbolism into their religious beliefs and daily practices. The diversity of these symbols is vast, reflecting the wide range of ecosystems and nations inhabited by Native American peoples. For the Plains tribes, the buffalo symbolized strength and abundance, while the eagle represented spiritual awareness and a connection to the Creator. In some Southwest tribes, such as the Hopi, the spider is a symbol of creation and protection. The Navajo associate Spider Woman with weaving and craftsmanship. In Pacific Northwest cultures, the raven is a trickster figure, associated with creation, intelligence and transformation.

In India where Hinduism emerged, cows became a sacred symbol of motherhood and abundance, while elephant figures like Ganesh represented wisdom and auspiciousness. Animals were revered as mounts for gods and goddesses, symbolizing divine grace and purity in Indian mythology, and featured prominently in cultural rituals such as Nag Panchami, a day of snake worship celebrated with offers of milk and sweets.

Animals in Fine Art

In European academic traditions, fine art is primarily defined as artwork created for aesthetics or creative expression, distinguishing it from decorative or applied art, which serves a practical function. In Byzantine and Medieval art, most fine art depicted religious scenes from the Christian Bible, aiming to elevate the churchgoer’s experience and evoke religious devotion.

Throughout art history, these religious scenes often featured a consistent cast of animal characters. The lamb, for example, typically represents Jesus Christ as the sacrificial Lamb of God, symbolizing purity and redemption. In secular art, the lamb evolved to signify gentleness, vulnerability and the pastoral idyll, as evidenced here in French School Courting Pastoral Scenes, which hails from the 18th century.

French School Courting Pastoral Scenes, 18th Century. Circa 1750. M.S. Rau.
  French School Courting Pastoral Scenes, 18th Century. Circa 1750. M.S. Rau.

The serpent holds dual symbolism in fine art, often representing themes of temptation, knowledge and danger. In Christian iconography, specifically, the serpent is famously associated with the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the iconic story that brought about disobedience and the “Fall of Man.” This narrative presents the serpent in a negative light as a deceptive and malevolent figure.

Across various cultures and historical periods, the serpent has also served as a symbol of transformation, renewal and wisdom, perhaps due to the ever-shedding of its skin, albeit tinged with caution due to the animal’s unpredictability and danger. The ancient Ouroboros symbol likely originated in ancient Egypt and Greece, and depicts a serpent eating its own tail, representing the cyclical nature of life, death and rebirth. It embodies the concept of eternal return, reflecting the continuous cycle of renewal and the interconnectedness of all things in the universe.

Woman And Snake Folk Art Cane. Circa 1860. M.S. Rau.


  Woman And Snake Folk Art Cane. Circa 1860. M.S. Rau.

There's no denying the grandeur of an elephant— their immense size and power command respect and awe. Elephants are also highly intelligent creatures with complex social structures. They form strong bonds within their herds, exhibit empathy towards each other and even mourn their dead. It comes as no surprise that in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the elephant-headed deity Ganesha became known as the remover of obstacles and the harbinger of prosperity, often depicted in various artistic forms to invoke blessings.

Throughout Eastern and Western traditions, the elephant's presence in art signifies stability and endurance, serving as a reminder of the importance of wisdom and the promise of good luck.

The Prince Of Brunei Skeleton Clock By Asprey. M.S. Rau.
  The Prince Of Brunei Skeleton Clock By Asprey. M.S. Rau.

Old Masters and Animals

In 17th-century paintings, animal symbolism played a crucial role in conveying deeper meanings and moral messages. Artists of the Baroque and Dutch Golden Age often used animals to represent various human virtues, vices and societal themes. For example, the presence of a dog in a domestic scene often symbolizes loyalty and fidelity, while a cat might imply independence or sensuality. Birds, especially peacocks, could symbolize vanity and pride, whereas a humble sparrow might represent modesty. Still life paintings frequently included animals to convey the transient nature of life; a skull, a wilting flower and dead birds were all important memento mori, symbols of mortality.

Joseph Van Bredael's painting below illustrates devotion to the young Jesus Christ, symbolized through the presence of loyal animals such as dogs and horses. Looking upward, the viewer may spot a cat perched on the roof, alluding to the historical practice of keeping animals in ceilings to control pests. This image may even hint at the possible origin of the phrase "raining cats and dogs," should an unfortunate feline occasionally fall from the attic.

The Adoration Of The Magi By Joseph Van Bredael. Late 17th/early 18th century. M.S. Rau.
  The Adoration Of The Magi By Joseph Van Bredael. Late 17th/early 18th century. M.S. Rau.

Baroque Symbolism

In Baroque art, the use of animal symbolism became even more elaborate and dramatic. Artists such as Peter Paul Rubens and Caravaggio employed animals to enhance the emotional intensity and dynamic compositions of their works. Rubens often included horses to symbolize power and movement, while Caravaggio used animals like the snake in Madonna and Child with St. Anne to signify both evil and redemption. These symbolic animals added layers of meaning to connect the viewer to the story, an important quality of art especially given the lower literacy rates of Renaissance and Baroque society.

Renaissance-Period Limoges Enamel Plaque. Mid-16th Century. M.S. Rau.
  Renaissance-Period Limoges Enamel Plaque. Mid-16th Century. M.S. Rau.

Animal Symbolism in Antique Furniture

As with fine art, animal themes have long been integral to antique furniture design, reflecting cultural and artistic values across different periods. In the Renaissance and Baroque eras, chairs, cabinets and tables were adorned with intricate carvings of lions, eagles and mythological creatures, symbolizing power, protection and divine presence.

The Rococo style of the 18th century embraced playful animal motifs like dolphins, birds and farm animals in pastoral scenes, adding whimsy and elegance. These decorations not only showcased artisans' craftsmanship and creativity but also conveyed symbolic meanings, enhancing both the aesthetic and functional appeal of antique furniture. In contrast, Black Forest furniture, originating in 19th-century Germany, stands out for its use of animal symbolism carved from walnut and oak. Bears symbolize strength, deer embody grace and birds signify freedom, meticulously carved into every detail from chair backs to cabinet handles, reflecting both natural beauty and German cultural identity through intricate folk art.

Swiss Black Forest Bear Table. Circa 1910. M.S. Rau.
  Swiss Black Forest Bear Table. Circa 1910. M.S. Rau.

Case Study: The English Lion

The lion has long been associated with royalty throughout history. Its fierce appearance and reputation as the "king of the jungle" symbolize strength, courage and leadership – qualities desired in a monarch. It is believed that William the Conqueror, the Norman king, introduced the lion symbol to England in the 11th century. Since then, English monarchs have been associated with nicknames like "Richard the Lionheart" pointing to their association with lion-like bravery. Even to this day, The Royal Arms of England, which incorporates Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, features three lions on a red background, for many England is synonymous with the "lion."

Silver Tankard By George Fox. Hallmarked London, 1875. M.S. Rau.
  Silver Tankard By George Fox. Hallmarked London, 1875. M.S. Rau.

Take, for example, this marvelous silver tankard. In medieval Europe, tankards – hefty mugs made of wood, metal or even leather – were the go-to vessels for transporting and drinking ale. Enormous in size and exquisite in craftsmanship, it was undoubtedly a gift or commission for a prestigious client. The body features raised acanthus flowers and bold sunflowers, while the hinged lid features a band of sculpted leaves and a regal crowned lion thumb piece.

Does this brief history have you inspired? Feel free to spot an animal symbol in art and antiques with this quick guide:

Animal Symbolism in Art: A Quick Guide

    • Lamb: Jesus, gentleness, vulnerability and pastoral idyll.
    • Dog: Often depicted in domestic scenes to symbolize loyalty and fidelity.
    • Cat: Symbolizes independence, mystery and sensuality.
    • Bird
      • Peacock: Symbolizes vanity and pride.
      • Sparrow: Represents modesty and humility.
      • Dove: Commonly associated with peace and the Holy Spirit.
    • Horse: Represents strength, freedom and nobility.
      • War Horse: Symbolizes bravery and martial prowess.
    • Lion: Often symbolizes power, courage and royalty.
    • Bull: Symbolizes power, fertility and tenacity.
    • Deer: Represents gentleness, purity and spirituality.
    • Fish: Represents abundance, faith and Christianity (Ichthys symbol).
    • Butterfly: Symbolizes transformation, resurrection and the soul.
    • Owl: Represents wisdom, knowledge and mystery.
    • Eagle: Symbolizes spiritual enlightenment, power and freedom.
    • Fox: Symbolizes cunning, cleverness and adaptability.


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