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The surprising symbolism of dogs in Christian art


This domestic animal was highly respected in the ancient world.

Dogs have been “man’s best friend” for several thousand years and were well known in the ancient world. The domestic animal can even be found in several different episodes in the Bible, such as the faithful dog of Tobias (see Tobit 5:16) — although often, they are mentioned in a negative way, as wild dogs and scavengers.

When it came to depicting dogs in medieval art, the dog took on some of its classical attributes of watchfulness and fidelity. Sometimes dogs would be drawn next to a married woman, symbolizing her faithfulness. (There’s a reason one of the most common names for a pet dog through the centuries was Fido — it’s Latin for “faithful.”)

Other times dogs were seen as healers by virtue of the natural properties of their tongue. One commentary explains, “The dog’s ability to heal wounds by licking them represents how the wounds of sin can be cured by confession. The dog returning to its vomit signifies those who make confession but then return to their sinful ways.” St. Roch, a 14th-century patron invoked against the plague, is often pictured with his miracle-working dog, who healed sores by licking them.

Later on, black and white dogs became symbols of the Dominican order or St. Dominic. This is in part due to a Latin phrase (Domini canes, “dogs of the Lord”) that closely resembles a Latin name of a Dominican friar (Dominicanus). Also, there is a story from the life of St. Dominic that said his mother had a dream that she would give birth to a dog with a torch in its mouth that would set the world on fire.

English poet Francis Thompson is well known for his poem “The Hound of Heaven,” which pictures God as a dog who continually pursues the wayward soul to bring it to redemption.

Read more: Orthodox blessings for devout kittens

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