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Deer as a Symbol in Art: Not Only a Christmas Decoration

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The deer is more fortunate than other animals in context of reputation. From East Asia to the shores of South America, among the pagan Slavs, Scandinavian tribes and Christians, the deer has a uniquely positive image at all times in many cultures. It is not without reason that it became one of the main Christmas symbols.

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.
Relief of the temple of Ninhursag, the Sumerian goddess of fertility in Al-Ubayd, 2600 BC.

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.

The ancient Maya called themselves Ah-Maya, "the people of the Deer". This animal was considered the main tribal ancestor and therefore a sacred animal.

Innocence and curse of the gods

With 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 the era of the early and mature Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
, artists used to return to this myth, but not for the purpose of moralizing.

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.
Paolo Veronese (Diana and Actaeon, 1560) did a similar thing, he hid the deer-man in the bushes and focused on puffy beauties.
Paolo Veronese. Diana and Acteon
Diana and Acteon
1565, 121.3×164.5 cm
The 15—16th centuries artists mainly turned to the mythological subject to depict a naked female body. This was virtually the only option allowed by the church.

Thirst for knowledge of God

Speaking 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.
Painting in the Roman catacombs of the 3—4th century
In general, during that period, many animals acquired symbolic meaning thanks to the "reliable" literary source, which appeared in the first centuries AD (presumably in Alexandria), and then was translated into various languages for another ten centuries. We are talking about a collection of articles titled Physiologus containing information about animals on the basis of fables and legends: creatures were endowed with symbolic interpretation, they were compared with Christian virtues. About the crowned king of the forests, the text says that he strives for water in order to be cured of the poison of the snake. This is interpreted as an allegory of the Holy Communion, which delivers a person from sins:
"As the deer strives for water sources. Likewise, you, man, comprise three renewals: baptism, repentance and incorruption. And when you sin, then strive for the church, and for the living book source, and for the prophetic legend, and drink the living water, that is, the Holy Communion."
Mosaic of the 5th century, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy
Therefore the deer at the source becomes a frequent motive for decorating baptisteries (separate rooms for baptism).
Mosaic at the baptistery in Stobi, North Macedonia, 5th century
The Edenic tree of life is another allegory used in religious art and associated with the image of a deer. The analogy is clear: just take a look at its gorgeous beamy horns!
Mosaic at the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome, 12th century

It has excellent hearing, it is careful and prudent

The 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
Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

Read more 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.



Read more
.
  • Prudence is seen as melancholy.
  • It is contrasted with the allegory of Music, symbolizing a phlegmatic temperament.
A proud and noble deer is a heraldic animal depicted on the emblem of the English King Richard II (Wilton diptych, left shutter, unknown artist, 1395, France). The deer also got on the coats of arms of several Russian cities.

From saint to alcohol through the centuries

Even 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.

Stained glass window in the Cathedral in Chartres, France, 12—13th centuries.
The deer is also a companion of Saint Aegidius, the patron saint of cripples. It was a female: the hermit lived in a deep forest, and the doe shared its milk with him — see the paintings by Memling and Bosch.
Hieronymus Bosch. Holy Hermits
Holy Hermits
1490-th , 86.5×120 cm
Saint Aegidius with the doe is depicted on the left shutter of the Bosch’s work.

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.
Albrecht Dürer. The Paumgartner Altar
The Paumgartner Altar
XVI century, 157×248 cm
These images are next to the first time in the history of fine art when celestials were given a resemblance to real people. Usually donators were painted as mere mortals praying or next to saints, but not as the saints.
After another five centuries, the image of the head of a deer migrated to the bottle of the well-known German digestif Jägermeister, as a dedication to all hunters and Jäger.
History knows one more case when the deer image from the art migrated to the mass market. Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen painting (1851) became a very popular image for the Scots. The Landseer’s iconic deer has been applied on packs of butter, biscuits and, of course, bottles of the famous Scotch whiskey.

Prestige, agility, passion

Another "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.
Monsieur Gustave Courbet, the French founder of realism, also had a passion for deer. He drew them and shot them equally well.
In 1858, the artist gained fame as an incredibly successful hunter by killing a huge deer in Germany. Colleagues in arms have not seen such a trophy for a quarter of a century.
Gustave Courbet. Quarry
Quarry
1856, 210×184 cm
Perhaps that was what the game and pleased Courbet looked like — this picture was painted two years earlier. The artist also had a whole series of works where he showed the life of the animals — scenes seen while waiting in ambush.
Hunting genre scenes were very popular in the 19th century and often won awards at the Paris Salon, the main site of the officially recognized art.

The symbol of pride and strength: the deer has become a symbol of a separate country

Among 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.
Niko Pirosmani (Pirosmanashvili). Deer

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.

The famous Wounded Deer (1946) by Frida Kahlo is hardly related to the previous evolution of meanings. It is an expression of her deeply personal anxiety and physical pain. Frida painted this artwork after a failed back surgery, after which her health worsened. The choice of the animal was due to the fact that Frida had a fawn named Graniso.
Frida Kahlo. A wounded deer
A wounded deer
1946, 22.4×30 cm
The deer was the favourite of the expressionist Franz Marc, co-founder of Der Blaue Reiter group.
Franz Mark. Stags in the Woods
Stags in the Woods
1911, 120×179 cm
Contemporary artists also paint deer. And even though contemporary art rejects the traditions of the past, a little eternal remains in the modern interpretation, i. e. nobility and vulnerability.




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.

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The main illustration: Adrienne Segur. Bright, Dear Deer, and Kit, 20th century