Vegder's Blog

May 29, 2017

Not Quite the Zodiac – Part 8, sub 2: the cock in European art, both sacred and profane

The humble egg? 

Diego Velazque (1599-1660)
National Gallery of Scotland

I started this post with a Velazquez because he is in my five top favorite artists. Although this is a youthful painting from early in his career it has all of the hallmarks of why he is considered so great.  Oh sure, it is a bit flawed, but who cares? Not I. The items on the table are tilted slightly forward, almost to the point that if that was the way they were in reality, they would most likely slide off the tabletop. But who cares? Not I. The whole thing is so lovingly rendered. Only a fool would dare to criticize it. Besides he was only 18 or so when he painted it. What were you doing when you were 18?

The National Gallery of Scotland curatorial notes say of this painting:

Velázquez was still a teenager when he painted this captivating work. It is dated 1618 which means that it was made shortly
after he had completed his apprenticeship in his native Seville. The astonishing and utterly convincing realism is nothing
like the dry and unimaginative painting of his teacher, Francisco Pacheco, and there seems little doubt that this picture was
a very deliberate showpiece for the young artist, a public demonstration of his skill and a declaration of his artistic emancipation.

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs is one of a small group of paintings known as bode­gones (from the Spanish bodega for a cellar or inn) which were naturalistic kitchen or tavern scenes with prominent still lifes. There were artistic precedents for such humble, low-life subjects in northern European art which Velázquez could have known through engravings. There is also a parallel in contemporary Spanish novels which frequently depicted roguish heroes in everyday settings. One of the most popular of these, Mateo Alemán’s picaresque novel Guzmán de Alfarache, recounts the adventures of a young street urchin and includes a passage describing an old woman cooking eggs. But whichever artistic or literary sources form the context for this work, it is the sheer dazzling skill of the young painter that seems to be the real subject. The composition thrusts the objects forward out of the shadow, each one demanding our attention in turn; rough and smooth, warm and cold, hard and soft, metal and earthenware,
the picture is a catalogue of contrasting textures and materials, running across the full range of our sense of touch.

Velázquez would soon move permanently to Madrid as court painter to the young King Philip IVof Spain. His portraits of the royal family and other members of the Spanish court and aristocracy are renowned for their humanity and psychological insight. In this painting, the old woman and the young boy were certainly painted from life but they do not interact and are devoid of expression or emotion. The human presence here is entirely upstaged by the tour de force at the centre of the composition which is the rendering of the eggs frying in a terracotta pot. Velázquez is said to have declared that he would rather be the first painter of common objects than the second in higher things. Illustrating his point, it could be argued that this pair of humble egg yolks, surrounded by thickening whites just starting to cook, is one of the most arresting pieces of painting in the entire collection of the Scottish National Gallery.

About 115 years later Chardin painted a wonderful, beautifully understated still life. Chardin, like Velazquez, had the touch.

Still life – ca. 1732
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779)
Detroit Institute of Arts

The simple egg –

Eggs and bread – 1543
Pieter Aertsen (1508-75)
Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille

In heraldry –

Coat of arms – 1503
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1523)
British Museum

There is a another copy of this print in the Art Institute of Chicago. Their curatorial files note: “Albrecht Dürer’s imaginary coat of arms is one of the Art Institute’s finest impressions, with a great delicacy of line and range of tonal values and textures. Though he produced a number of literal portraits as well as abstract family crests, Dürer’s over-the-top treatment of the flowing drapery, and the seemingly living symbols—crowing rooster, and lion rampant— on the crest and shield suggest the artist enjoyed taking a stale iconographic convention to its extremes.” We couldn’t agree more.

About 30 years later Barthel Beham created his own brilliant heraldic design. Like the Dürer above we don’t know it exact purpose.

Barthel Beham (Ca. 1502-40)
British Museum

A few years after that Hans Sebald Beham gave us his example. Hans was Barthel’s brother. Almost everyone agrees that the engraving shown below was created on the inspiration of the one shown above. A nice contrast, eh?

Hans Sebald Beham (1500-50)
The Rijksmuseum

There is always one person who is the best chicken painter ever – in my opinion it is Melchior d’Hondecoeter

Below is one example which helps make my point. It dates from ca. 1665-68. These are all studies for chicks which appeared in later compositions. Besides, I am a sucker for oil studies. They are the closest things to yummy, in my book.

Now for a qualifier, an afterthought, from my shower this morning: When it comes to representations of roosters and chickens, I also put Jakuchū, a Japanese artist, right up there with d’Hondecoeter. Of course, they are completely different animals, d’Hondecoeter and Jakuchū, that is, but they are both glorious in their own way and should be acknowledged as such. You’ll see, when, if ever, I get to my next post which should be about the cock in Japan.

Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-95)
The Rijksmuseum

I am not the only one to sing the praises of d’Hondecoeter. Théophile Thoré-Bürger (1807-69) wrote in his Musées de la Hollande: “No one has painted cocks and hens, ducks and drakes, and especially chickens, so perfectly as Melchior d’ Hondecoeter. He paints such families with insight and sympathy, as Italians paint the mystical Holy Family; he expresses the mother-love of a hen as Raphael expresses the mother-love of a Madonna…”

Art breeds art

D’ Hondecoeter comes from a long line of  d’ Hondecoeters. His grandfather was a painter, his father was a painter – more on him in a moment – his uncle was a painter, his cousin was a painter. Melchior lived immersed in a world of painters and rose to rival or surpass most of them. His father Gijsbert (1604-53) also painted pictures of fowl, but they, by contrast, look static, while all the birds look like they “…have roosted quietly while their portraits were being taken.” See the image below.

Gijsbert d’Hondecoeter (1604-53)
Musée du Louvre

On the other hand, Melchior learned dramatic lessons from such artists as Frans Snyders, who knew how to paint all kinds of animals in action, often in life and death struggles. In the image shown below d’Hondecoeter shows a cock kicking-ass on a turkey. Nothing like the painting shown above by his father. Not only that, but it is more than 5′ high by 6′ long. A slice of life. We should point out that he painted even larger compositons.

Melchior d’Hondecoeter
Cleveland Museum of Art

Even dead Melchior’s chicken have more life in them, at least, visually than the so-called living images painted by his father. See…

Melchior d’Hondecoeter
The Staatliches Museum Schwerin

D’Hondecoeter owes some of his techniques to a contemporary of his, Willem van Aelst. Who painted which first? You tell me. Shades of Michelangelo’s affect on Raphael and vice versa.

Stilleven met gevogelte – 1658
Willem van Aelst (1627-83)
The Rijksmueum

Tidbit #1: According to Robert Palmatier the term ‘battle royal‘ comes from cock fighting. An equal number of cocks are placed in a put and allowed – encouraged – to fight until half of them are dead. The survivors are allowed to rest until they are put in the pit again to resume their battle. The last cock standing is the winner. Pamatier likens this system to the evolved playoffs of every sport from tennis to American football.

Tidbit #2: Catchpole‘ – now here’s a word I have seen, but never bothered to learn or use, until now. A catchpole was a sheriff’s deputy who went after debtors. It comes from the medieval Latin cacepollus or tax gatherer, but really translates as chicken chaser. The chicken reference is in the -pole part. Poulet is French for chicken. Hence, catch a chicken.

Tidbit #3: Chicken, chicken-livered, chicken-hearted, chicken-shit, chicken out – While the rooster is a feisty fellow and will almost always take on a fight or even create one, the hen, if alone, will try to flee if she isn’t trying to protect her brood. The difference between ‘chicken-livered’ and ‘chicken-hearted’ has more to do with our concept of which body organ is the ‘true’ source of courage.

The sacred cock 

Crucified Rooster – 1964
Ivan Generalić (1914-92)

Generalić was a self-taught, Croatian artist, who often painted his pictures on the back of panes of glass. An old tradition, but oh so amazing. One book on naive art, Naive Kunst, says: “Es ist schwierig, ja fast unmöglich, einen direkten Einfluss der Malerei von…. Ivan Generalić auf die professionelle Kunst zu.” Let me translate this loosely for you, with the help of Google: “It is difficult, indeed, if not impossible to know the direct influence(s) on the painting(s) of Ivan Generalić.” That couldn’t be truer of the painting shown above where Generalić has substituted a crucified Jesus for a hapless rooster. I am sure he had his reasons, but, as you know, I am often clueless. I live in ignorance, while trudging on.

St. Peter and the cock’s crow 

Peter and the cock are mentioned six times in the New Testament. In Luke 22:61 – from The King James Bible

And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter.
And Peter remembered the word of the Lord,
how he had said unto him,
Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.

The Repentance of Peter – ca. 1624-29
Daniel Seghers (1591-1651)
The Louvre

In Matthew 26:75 – from The New International Bible

Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken:
“Before the rooster crows,
you will disown me three times.”
And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Georges de La Tour (1593-1652)
Cleveland Museum of Art

There is an interesting anonymous Spanish painting in Dresden showing Christ at the column, with Peter nearby. The unusual element is the rooster perched above both of them.


There is a particularly curious wing, probably the left wing, of a triptych in the Musée national du Moyen Age in Paris. The main, central panel represented the Presentation in the Temple which gives us clues as some of the disembodied symbols seen on this panel. Perhaps the purse signifies the money changers that Jesus was later to drive from their holy sanctuary. The sword may be a preview of Peter’s act of violence meant to prevent the arrest of Jesus. Is than an ear I see along the left side of the blade, a little more than half way up? The rooster atop the column, Peter’s three times denial. The whip, a substitute for the flagellation? Is that meant to be a frond along the right side as a symbol of holiness?

Matthew 12:12

And Jesus went into the temple of God,
and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple,
and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers,
and the seats of them that sold doves

John 18:10

Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it,
and smote the high priest’s servant,
and cut off his right ear.
The servant’s name was Malchus.

John 19:1

Then Pilate therefore took Jesus,
and scourged him.

Wing of a triptych.
Northern French, ca. 1475
Musée de Cluny

The proof positive about my speculations, my musings, on the painting shown above, can be found in the painting shown below.

Late 15th century
Musée de Cluny

The symbolism of the rooster is reinforced by a painting by Italian Mariotto di Nardo in the Avignon.

Christ in his sepulcher
Mariotto di Nardo (active 1394-1424)

Anyone for a game? 

The piece below is described as a ‘pion de trictrac’. A pion can be translated as a pawn in chess or even as a foot-soldier. Trictrac is a game similar to backgammon. In Dice, Cards, Wheels: A Different History of the French Culture by Thomas M. Kavanagh it says:

[That unlike a game of cards] tric-trac is a “mixed” game whose outcome depends not only on the chance element of the points thrown on
two dice but also on the skill with which the competing players move their pieces around the board, advancing their own position while
blocking their opponent. It is this added element of the player’s skill, of knowing how best to use the points one throws, that transforms
tric-trac into a social event, a game capable of interesting not only the two players who have money riding on its outcome  but a wider circle
of spectators who admire, test themselves against, and learn from the moves made by the players.

A knight riding a rooster
Ivory – 12th century
Musée de Cluny

In the previous post there is a painted plate or bowl showing an ancient Greek figure riding a large cock. That item was created approximately 1600 years before this one. Coincidence?

The Inexplicable Egg 

One of the greatest paintings ever is in the Brera in Milan – the Montefeltro Altarpiece, Madonna and Child with Saints

This is a detail from the painting shown below.

The Montefeltro Altarpiece – 1472-74
Piero della Francesca (1416-92)

Propoganda: The Dutch lion vs. the French Rooster

Detail from the painting seen below.

Allegory of the French invasion of Holland in 1672
Johannes van Wijckersloot
The Rijksmuseum


There is a German text at the top of this print. The Rijksmuseum says it is based on a pun. The woman, a wife, threatening with her upraised hand, the man, her husband. Sounds plausible to me.

Julius Goltzius (1550 – 1595)
The Rijksmuseum

The cuckold(s) 

This bizarre image not only shows a fellow riding a large cock in the foreground, while in the background there is a whole army of a battle-ready military figures, similarly mounted. I suppose – and this is only a supposition – that the point this print must/might be making is that whenever men go off to war a great many of them might end up being cuckolded. Or, as in this case, all of them – one and all. Unless, of course… they are all riding off to make cuckold of other men’s chattel – in the biblical sense of the word.

Der Hahnrei
Anonymous ca. 1700
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

However, at the University of Texas, Austin, there is a curious mate to the print shown above. Their curatorial files says: “Patiens cornuta mulier. Die geduldige Hanreyin. (The patient cuckolded woman), 17th century. Engraving and etching. Satire on the cuckolded woman who married a much younger husband, with verses in Latin and German. An old woman, with horns growing out of her head, rides on a huge rooster. In the background to the left, her husband is wooing a younger woman, and to the right he is beating his complaining wife.”

The patient cuckolded woman
University of Texas, Austin

The word ‘cuckold’ raises a number of curious problems – for me – both linguistically and culturally. The word ‘cuckold’ in English has its roots in the Latin ‘cuculus’ which can mean cuckoo (the bird) or bastard, fool, ninny and/or cuckold (the man). Why? Most people agree that it comes from the fact that the female cuckoo (the bird) is polyandrous, i.e., has sex with more than one male, then lays her egg in the nest of a different species of birds for that bird to hatch and raise as her own. Conclusion: the cheating wife. But that is in English (and French).  In German (and Danish and Swedish) the root word is completely different. In German the root is ‘hahn’ or ‘rooster’. The full German word is ‘hahnrei’. As best I can tell, no one is quite sure why the ‘-rei’ ending, but… My point: the two prints shown above show figures, multiple figures, riding atop a cock. Thus the visual connection makes sense – at least in German (and Swedish and Danish).

The Dutch go about it in a different way: neither cuckoo nor rooster. There word is ‘hoorndrager’. “Hoorn” means ‘horn’ and ‘drager’ means ‘bearer’. Hmmmm? The Spanish use ‘cornudo’. The French word ‘cornu’ means ‘horned’. The Portuguese cuckold word is ‘corno.’ Confusing? Not really. Almost everyone has a word for just about everything and if your chart such thing common themes begin to appear out of the mist.

Sometimes I just don’t know the rhyme or reason why…

Three figures dressed as for a masquerade. That’s fine. What I don’t understand is why there appears to be a dead – recently deceased – rooster strapped to the belt of the person with his back to us. Why?

A veiled woman and two masked men – 1595-96
Studio of Jacob de Gheyn II (1565-1629)
The Rijksmuseum

Tell me gentlemen, if we still wore codpieces would yours look like this?

Detail from another de Gheyn studio print.
The full print is shown below.
Three masked dancing men.

The Rijksmuseum

The rooster as symbolism 

V-J Day
William David Brokman Davis (1892 – ca. 1993)
British Museum



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