The Getty recently acquired a magnificent copy of the Book of Deeds of Jacques de Lalaing, essentially a biography of the greatest knight of the late Middle Ages. The manuscript had resided in a private collection for hundreds of years, and was only known through black-and-white photos of a publication dating from 1914 (learn more about the manuscript and its origins). Because I’ve made a scholarly specialty of Flemish illumination of the 16th century, the date and locale of this manuscript, I was responsible for the research in preparation for the manuscript’s acquisition. The book begins with a monumental frontispiece of the text’s author at his desk hard at work.
It is almost certain that this illumination was painted by Simon Bening, the most celebrated manuscript artist of the 16th century. Bening was the favored artist of patrons across Europe, famed for his poetic landscapes, stolid figures, psychological subtlety, and fleck-like brushwork (his work was highlighted in the 2003 exhibition Illuminating the Renaissance).
Since the Lalaing manuscript had received almost no scholarly attention, my job was to find stylistic and compositional links to the known manuscripts by Bening. I found abundant close comparisons for the seated figure, the conception of the room’s interior, and the way in which the surfaces of objects were painstakingly evoked.
For instance, our graduate intern, Alexandra Kaczenski, who was working with me, noticed that the still life of flowers in a majolica vase on the window ledge was painted in a very similar way to one found in a prayer book by Bening from the same period in the Getty’s collection.
In addition, even the tiniest of details is given artistic attention of the highest order. In the outdoor courtyard with the waiting horse, a tiny blue blob is just visible atop a red hitching rail used to tether horses. Under extreme magnification, it becomes evident that the blue blob is actually a tiny monkey dressed in a monk’s habit with a delicate cable chaining him to the wall behind. The monkey is less than two millimeters tall.
Another hallmark of Bening’s work is the way that light plays a major role in the image, spilling across the desk and the floor. And curled up in the perfect warm patch of sunlight is a fluffy dog with his head resting on his paws. I’m a dog lover myself, and so I couldn’t help noticing during the course of my research that this particular dog kept cropping up in Bening’s late work, which provided additional evidence that the image was by Bening.
There is no lack of confirmation that Bening liked dogs in general. Dogs in medieval illuminations often have a symbolic meaning, usually relating to the theme of loyalty, but in Bening’s works, they seem to pop up everywhere, mostly without a distinct symbolic function.
They race alongside huntsmen:
They peek out from behind the skirts of noblewomen:
They coolly oversee tumultuous religious events (although here the calm greyhound may well serve as an emblem of faithfulness in contrast to Saint Peter’s dramatic denial of Christ):
Certainly, then, Bening was fond of enlivening his works with the presence of all sorts of dogs. But this particular dog, with red ears, spots on a white coat, and a feathery tail struck me as special. In the frontispiece of the Lalaing manuscript, the dog’s physical appearance and personality are evoked with great care, from the gradations of white in areas of his fur to the pensive expression on his face, to the tiny pink point of his nose.
This dog seemed to occur over and over again in various of Bening’s works. I could find no other specific dog appearing in his images with this frequency and regularity.
I found him as a little puppy in the arms of a lady:
I found him in the countryside:
I found him in the city:
In fact, I found him almost a dozen times in different books, wagging, snuffling, hunting, and sleeping.
Clearly Bening liked dogs, and this dog appears in different guises throughout his work over a period of about 15 years. Could this be Simon Bening’s own dog? Of course, there is no way to prove this, and it simply could have been that Bening often reused this dog from a workshop model drawing, but it is a fun possibility. After all, the convincing way in which Bening depicts the dog’s movements and antics indicates that he may have been using a model from life. And what would be more convenient than observing your own pet?
The dog seems to resemble a modern-day Brittany Spaniel.
Although the Brittany breed wasn’t developed until the 17th century in France, the characteristic playful manner, markings, and feathery coat make a good comparison. And what is more natural than a Brittany curling up in the sun like the dog in the Getty’s manuscript?
We will likely never know whether Simon Bening had a pet dog, or whether he thought to incorporate him into his manuscript illuminations if he did. But based on the sheer multitude of dogs that appear in his images (and I only ever found two cats), I think we can safely posit that Simon Bening was a “dog person.” As for the fluffy red-and-white canine who appears frequently in his late work, I think I’ll give him a name. As I found in Kathleen Walker-Meikle’s book Medieval Dogs (The British Library, 2013), over a thousand suitable names for dogs were given in a medieval manuscript called The Master of the Game. One of them, which seems entirely appropriate here, has inspired me to give this Bening doggie the name “Smylefeste.” He surely brings a smile to my face.
This new acquisition, open to the frontispiece featuring the dog (aka “Smylefeste”), is currently on display until September 25 at the Getty Center in the same gallery as Things Unseen: Vision, Belief, and Experience in Medieval Manuscripts.
In the meantime, my research will now turn to the other images in the manuscript, which are by a different artist. This artist is not a member of Bening’s workshop, but seems much more influenced by the movement known as Antwerp Mannerism. His work is characterized by a painterly quality seen in the handling of the figures and landscapes, the bright colors, and the dramatically conceived compositions. The illuminations are at the same time pervaded by a Mannerist sensibility most clearly seen in the loving care lavished on the costumes and settings.
There are even a couple of dogs featured in his compositions. Who knows, maybe they will help lead me to identifying this artist as well.