At all periods animals have been used by man in art and literature to symbolize his religious, social and political beliefs, and artists have found constant inspiration in the grace and beauty of animal forms. Yet animals have also always been viewed realistically by hunters, sportsmen, farmers, and all who come into daily contact with them or exploit them for food supplies or as beasts of burden.
In Animals in Art and Thought Francis Klingender discusses these various attitudes in a survey which ranges from prehistoric cave art to the later Middle Ages. He is especially concerned with uncovering the latent as well as the manifest meanings of animal art, and he presents a detailed examination of the literary and archaeological monuments of the periods under review. The themes discussed include the Creation myths of pagan and Christian religion, the contribution of the animal art of the ancient Orient to the development of the Romanesque and Gothic styles in Europe, the use of beast fables in social or political satire, and the heroic associations of animals in medieval chivalry.
The author writes that “It is the purpose of this book to suggest possible reasons for... changes of attitude and to attempt some interpretations of these animal images, life-like or fantastic, in the minds of our ancestors since the time when the earliest pictures known to us were made. I shall proceed by comparing representative works of art in each period with contemporary representative works of art in each period with contemporary documents of folklore or literature, on the one hand, and with the 'real' relations between men and beasts typical of the time, on the other. Wherever possible I shall use the written documents as if they were the verbal associations evoked by the visual imagery in the artist's mind. Where the evidence is too complex or where no written documents survive for this method, I shall endeavor to obtain a similar result by reconstructing the imaginative climate within which the artist worked. Either approach precludes the discussion of a work of art in isolation from its setting. Men's practical experience of animals as hunters, farmers or scientists, and the relative importance of these activities in the lives of different communities, cannot but affect the ways in which ordinary people dream of animals and artists depict them. Hence neither the real relationship between men and beasts, nor the symbolic meanings attached at various times to beasts should be neglected to interpret the ever-changing forms of animal art.”