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Animals > Monkeys

Monkey 1



This polished, tactile figure of a monkey is playing the bagpipes.  His high forehead, close-set eyes, finger, toes and prehensile tail are all hard evidence that this creature is a monkey, yet his snout resembles that of a hunting dog.  Thus he can be identified as a baboon.  Perched on his haunches the creature grips the sack of his instrument between his thighs and, judging from his heavy-lidded eyes, plays a soulful tune. 

The instrument could, however, be interpreted as a vulgar extension of the monkey’s anatomy.  By the Renaissance a monkey in art was often used as a personification of Lust to illustrate man’s baser instincts, so it is probable that this is the meaning of this carving.








Monkey 2


Monkeys make frequent appearances in church art, on pew ends, misericords, bench ends and choir-stall panelling.  It is likely that this one came from a church arm rest.  It is

well-patinated from constant handling.

This, like the previous example, is a long-nosed baboon, with deeply-set eyes, a fine row of even teeth and plenty of fur.

As part of a choir-stall the baboon would have been in the service of the church.  He could be seen as the slothful, blind, greedy, sinful soul of man that would benefit from listening to umpteen sermons and masses.

While man himself was sitting in the church pew with his hand resting on the baboon’s snout, he could contemplate his own pretentiousness and vanity, while regretting his slothful attitudes and lustful thoughts. 





Monkey 3


This finely-carved panel once formed part of the 18th-century wall panelling in a French chateau.

Later in date than the previous examples it shows the monkey in a different guise with an almost human face.  The ape was thought to have a better sense of taste than other animals and this idea led back to the Garden of Eden when the Devil offered Eve the fatal fruit.

The ape was equated with the Devil.  On this panel it is hunched over a piece of fruit under a tree, with a long, serpent-like tail coiling down.  The references to the tree of knowledge, the apple and the serpent are clear.  At the same time the richly-carved foliage and the luscious fruit remind one of Taste, one of the five senses.

The scroll or ribbon has a markedly 18th-century design to it and seems to bind the animal as if it were chained.  A fettered monkey was thought to symbolize the sinner enslaved by his own bodily lusts, destined to remain for ever hunched over in contemplation of trivia, rather than walking tall with eyes trained heavenwards.

This one panel encapsulates medieval and Renaissance ideas about the monkey filtered through an 18th-century artistic mind.




Monkey 4



The Five Senses are represented in art as five women with attributes that vary according to period.   In the Renaissance Taste bears a basket of fruit.  By the end of the 16th century she is portrayed, as here, accompanied by an ape eating fruit, in this case an orange.  Later on in the 17th century Taste is more commonly illustrated by a drinking scene.


This flat-backed oak figure has been made as an appliqué for a piece of furniture or panelling, reputedly in Hertfordshire.  She probably formed part of a series where Sight would have been accompanied by an eagle, Hearing by a stag, Smell by a dog and Touch by a bird perched on the hand.