As a Biological Anthropologist, I study the social behaviour of baboons in Nigeria, treating these animals as a model for the evolution of early hominids. But while primatology is now an established discipline, and approaching primate behaviour from a scientific perspective is common, this was not always the case. Working across all three UCL Museums has provided an unusual opportunity to study the changing attitudes to primates throughout time and across cultures. In this quest to discover all things primate among the UCL collections, the most unexpected finding so far has been Albrecht Dürer’s The Virgin with a Monkey which can be viewed at the UCL Art Museum.
This is one of the most popular of Dürer’s engravings, with 14 copies made. It is interesting not only because it features a monkey, and not only because such images were rare in the 15thcentury, but because of the symbolism of its image in a piece of Christian iconography. In researching such a piece, and as resident primatologist at the Art Museum, my first task was to identify the species. A simple task with a simple answer: none. It is similar to a green monkey, but both the colouring extravagant facial hair suggest that this is not a perfect fit. This type of hair does exist in other primate species, but none of this size or overall appearance.
As the artist was known for the accuracy of his engravings, and here it is not possible to determine the species, it seems unlikely that he had a live model. It may be that Dürer’s monkey is in fact a generic old world monkey that could originate from anywhere in Africa; a combination of species Dürer may have seen on his travels around Europe with its many menageries. So, if this engraving was not intended to be scientifically accurate, then what was its purpose? It is possible that the use of an exotic animal functioned to demonstrate the artist’s talent; the contrast between traditional Bavarian scenery, religious images and an exotic animal showing a wide range of Durer’s abilities within this one engraving. But is there any significance to the artist’s decision to depict a monkey to showcase his talent?
Monkeys and Christianity
In Christian iconography, monkeys represent base instincts such as lust, greed and malice, and can even represent the devil. So, if we approach this from a theological angle, why is this monkey at the feet of the Virgin? One theory is that he is subdued by her purity and can no longer display his usual ignoble behaviour. It is certainly true that much of his natural behavioural repertoire, though similar to that of most humans, would not befit an image of holiness and purity as portrayed here. An alternative explanation is that the monkey’s position represents the dominion of the Madonna over all other creatures, and the fact that he is tied up could support this theory.
In a time before zoos existed, private menageries were seen as an attempt to bring together God’s creations, and to recreate the Garden of Eden. Pope Leo X had one of the largest menageries of Dürer’s time, and later asked the artist to create an engraving of his rhinoceros one of the most famous of all Dürer’s works. While now firmly in the realm of speculation since Dürer’s visits to Italy were not entirely documented, it is possible that he might have seen some of the Pope’s exotic creatures on his first visit, before creating The Virgin and the Monkey. In 1515, after a second visit to Rome, Dürer produced The Triumphal Arch which, (along with Rhinoceros) is currently on display at the British Museum and includes one of the earliest representations of a South American primate, a marmoset. Incidentally, marmosets are known for their extravagant facial hair, which is similar to that of Dürer’s monkey.
Discussing the role of this monkey with museum visitors has been fascinating, and has shown that while many had heard of Dürer, and some of The Virgin with a Monkey, none had previously considered the potential significance of this exotic animal. So, whether Dürer’s monkey is a real or composite species, an embodiment of human sin, an example of God’s dominion, or a demonstration of artistic talent, so far he has proven to be a welcome surprise to museum visitors and staff alike.