Animal Agency Reloaded?

Performanz der Tiere auf mittelalterlichen Bischofsstühlen und tierliche Desiderata in der mediävistischen Kunstgeschichte


This article explores the extent to which animals play a pivotal role as carriers of meaning in medieval art. It will be demonstrated that artists related them to the object’s function by selecting specific animal species and by the way the animals are depicted. Since the symbolic meaning of animals was never limited or fixed to one single level, my approach extends beyond their symbolicity and focusses specifically on their performative actions. This approach is by no means new, as it was already taken by Meyer Schapiro in the 1960s. As a case study, I will focus on medieval Italian thrones from the late 11th and the 12th century, whose origin and function have hitherto remained obscure. Within these chairs, animal represen­tations in the form of elephants, horses, and lions play a role that surpasses their function as mere carriers of meaning. It will be shown that important insights emerge from the juxtaposition of the animals depicted in relief to the ones carved in the round. Furthermore, the animals manifest their agency in various ways, depending on the species and the associated essence, ability, and virtue. This can lead to iconographic enhancement as well as an artistically more sophisticated enlivening of the sculpture.


Animal Agency, Elephant, Horse, Human–Animal Studies, Lion, Medieval Art History