Sunday 3 August 2014

Hunting and the Wire Drawing Bench

First half of the panel
The Ore Mountains were not only central to Saxony because of their seams of wealth, but they also provided a hunting environment rich in game, fowl and fish. Scholars are unanimous in their commentary that for the highest echelons of society, hunting, hawking and angling as sports were an integral part of European culture, and was for some, a consuming obsession.[1] If Charles Bergman is to be believed, hunting played a part in the creation of nations; ‘royalty asserted their rights to the ownership of the forests of their countries and the hunt was closely associated with the assertion of national control by European monarchs over their lands and people’.[2] 

Hunting is an ephemeral action. A day of sport which happens and then, unless it is recorded for posterity, or immortalised in some way, immediately forgotten. It is a possibility that the wealth of written and illustrative material depicting the hunt was a method of physically recording the aristocracy’s assertion of national control. It seems appropriate that from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, heads of state commissioned talented artists to produce manuscripts, books, tapestries, woodcarvings and other luxury craft items, most of which were only visible only to certain strata of society. In this way, lesser people would be reminded of royal power, status and prestige. Yet this was nothing new. The sheer quantity of artistic evidence haunts the earliest examples of European civilisation, from the pre-historic cave paintings of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc[3] to the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome.[4] All of these hunting images in their many and varied media demonstrates an innate human desire to draw power and therefore, control, from these records of its associations, rituals and symbolism.[5] 

Whether or not these ubiquitous hunting images were created to remind people who was in charge, the scholar must be mindful of differences even amongst European cultures; geographical, environmental and climactic variances had led to wide cultural divergence. For instance a mural of generic hunting images reminiscent of Gaston Fébus’s Le Livre de chasse found in Madingley Hall near Cambridge show scenes of bear hunting, boar hunting and hawking.[6] Although wild bears and boars were long gone from the British Isles by 1600, the backgrounds represented in the murals almost certainly include characteristics of the hall’s parkland. Britain’s nobility had to reimagine what were common occurrences on the continent and draw power by association. There was no pretence in the The Boke of Huntyng, dated from around 1400, which disregarded the bear altogether, but drew attention to other quarry worthy of the king.[7] 

However highly dangerous bear hunting was popular in the mountains of southern central Germany, where it was hunted by Electors and Princes. Furthermore, the literature offers examples of what happens after the kill in different parts of Europe; in Germany ‘the breaking up of the quarry (zer-würken) [quarry meaning the hart] was not considered an integral part of the hunt, which stands in marked contrast with French and English traditions’ because it did not concern the [German] noble sportsmen’.[8] Given my focus on south Germany and the images on the wire drawing bench, it is important to consider them and hunting in the context of their specific geographical location.

August’s passion for the hunt was a further manifestation of early Germanic society’s tremendous hunting culture, and their perceived lack of civilisation as described by Tacitus’s Germania Magna. To quote him, ‘whenever the Germans are not fighting, they pass much of their time in the chase’.[9] Aberth stresses this traditional importance of hunting and access to wild animal by noting that various early Germanic laws ascribe penalties for killing, stealing, and hiding another’s game animals, including deer, boar, bear, fish and birds.[10] By the sixteenth century, the legal and physical protection of the Elector’s quarry was taken extremely seriously. Whilst poaching penalties remained extremely harsh, the Elector was using new surveying technology to enhance his hunting experience; the habitat of the game was changing, and therefore careful land management and habitat enclosure was required to preserve his entertainment. 

As forestry historian Friedrich Schneider explains, ‘using thick hedges or Hage, they enclosed large swathes of land to trap game’, and in an astonishing act of princely prerogative, in ‘1565 he fenced off the entire border with Bohemia’.[11] This demonstrates the lengths to with princes and electors would go in order to protect their carefully managed forest animals, and prevent encroachment from other hunters, either aristocratic ones from over the border, or ones closer to home. A high hedge-like barrier can be seen in the image where mastiffs and their handlers are walking up the hill towards the city of Dresden, so the bench is reflecting the reality of the changing hunting landscape.

The mix of dramatically brutal and subtly evocative scenes on the rest of the bench offers the viewer an insight into the activities of the hunter – and the hunted – which would have taken place whilst August was in the forest. I gave a brief description of the twelve images above but discuss a couple in more detail here, drawing out local custom and making reference to other sources, where appropriate. We are fortunate in that hunting is extremely well documented in medieval German sources, and David Dalby synthesised a substantial amount of contemporary literature to describe hunting techniques in his Lexicon. I draw comparisons with various sketches and drawings by Jost Amman and Augustin Hirschvogel (1503-1553), as well as manuscript illuminations, for example, there is a Book of Hours, MS Egerton 1146 (Worms, c. 1500) which is relevant here because it offers a clear and knowledgeable insight into the complete cycle of hunting, with all twelve pas de page illustrating some aspect of the hunt. It is useful because some of the quarry species recorded on the bench reflect those in the manuscript, namely, the hart or hind, the hare, the bear and the wild boar, with emphasis on beasts traditionally categorised as ‘noble’. After all, even the animal kingdom had a hierarchy Almond remarks, ‘the manner in which men hunted was significant. Mounted hunting was not only an important past time of the nobility, but also a social marker, indicating gentility of birth, a proper education and being ‘lerned’ ( in hunting and hawking)’.[12] Therefore taking into account the hawking and fishing scenes, every image on the bench displayed a hunting sport worthy of the Elector.

To illustrate a number of points, I’m using the panel which depicts the deer hunt. It is the third of the long panels, the central panel on the right hand side, if you are facing the AM landscape end. It follows the bird trapping and is before the boar hunt. Given its position under the jubilant aftermath of the Pope losing to Luther in the joust in the frieze above, there has to be some significance to the placing and meaning of this panel. I suggest they are directly connected; it reflects the exciting climax to the moment when the hounds start snapping at the heels of the noble beasts, just as the Reformers are successfully challenging the Catholic Church. Compositionally this panel is perfectly balanced; a large dark tree trunk stands talismanic in the centre, yet the two halves are joined by the sinuous hounds bounding past. The mounted nobles carry spears and gallop into the scene with their prancing horses. Compared to the balletic movements of the two antlered deer, the horses seem heavy and overburdened so the wild and domestic creatures are marked as worlds apart. The hunters on foot camouflage themselves and crouch behind tufts of greenery, or stand behind tree trunks to watch and wait. 

The crouching and standing positions of the men are identical, if only reversed in Hirschvogel’s Pursuit of Stag from the late 1540s.[13] Jane Peters states, ‘for scope and variety, his [series of hunting scenes] could only be matched by the medieval tradition of illustrated hunting treaties, and they in turn anticipate the illustrated hunting books by Amman, Stimmer and Stradanus’.[14] As elegantly as any of his drawings, the Nuremburg born Hirschelvogel links the changing styles required by wealthy patrons; from the miniature medieval manuscripts to the early modern style. Needless to say, his protégé Amman left a prodigious number of hunting with hounds images in various media, all as dynamic and as composed as the one on the bench.

Sources are unanimous in suggesting that the hart was the most important quarry for the noble huntsman’s open chase. Almond confirms, ‘they were fierce and dangerous quarry and therefore worthy of the respect of noble hunter warriors.[15] Regarding the method of hunting, Dalby adds that hinds were sometimes hunted with hounds, and driven into nets, rather than pursued cross country.[16] This method of deer hunting illustrated beautifully by the Egerton manuscript miniature for the month of April. Almond explains, ‘Springtime was usually a season of food shortages…stags and hinds were driven by hunters and hounds into fixed nets to provide…meat.[17] 

We can use the sources to identify from which time of year this panel shows, given some provisos. Firstly there is no snow, which is the case for all the illustrations on the bench, so would preclude winter; and apart from the bird trapping, there are no nets used for the game. There are no clues within the forest clearing to confirm whether it is April or spring time, however, the hunters have trapped a group of male deer, or a stag herd, reflecting the tendencies of red deer to form large, single-sex herds outside the autumn rutting time. Although there were variations in the closed season where deer were not hunted, it was usually May and June so it could not have been then. As the summer progressed into early autumn, deer grew fat and the hunters would concentrate and select a single great stag to provide noble sport and a good chase to entertain the court, as is demonstrated on the central panels on the opposite side. So it is reasonable to assume that this panel is April.

If we combine the elements mentioned above, August is making a powerful statement with this bench. The association of hunting with being Elector of Saxony; a luxury object recording his hunting prowess in defeating the most savage of local beasts; and finally, images of the landscape subjugated by the power of technology. These three elements would ensure an honoured guest invited to his Kunstkammer would experience a certain level of humility.

[1] A Cultural History of Animals in the Renaissance, ed. by Bruce Boehrer, Linda Kalof, and Brigitte Pohl-Resl (Oxford: Berg, 2007); Richard Almond, Medieval Hunting (The History Press, 2011).
[2] Boehrer, Kalof and Pohl-Resl, p. 57.
[3] Golden, p. 35.
[4] John Aberth, An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature (London: Routledge, 2013), p. 176.
[5] Aberth, p. 176.
[6] Richard Almond, ‘Medieval Hunting: A Huntsman’s Home’, History Today, 2011 <> [accessed 8 February 2014].
[7] Anne Rooney, Hunting in Middle English Literature (Boydell & Brewer, 1993), p. 9.
[8] Dalby, p. xiii. Indeed he talks about the
[9] Aberth, p. 180.
[10] ‘Mirror of the Saxons’, 1295 <> [accessed 3 August 2014]. ‘More than 400 manuscripts of the Sachsenspiegel (Mirror of the Saxons) survive, attesting to the wide dissemination and influence on the whole of Europe of this first law book in German. The most beautiful copies are the four illuminated manuscripts, all produced between 1295 and 1371, and now held in Heidelberg, Oldenburg, Dresden, and Wolfenbüttel. The most artistically valuable of these documents is the Dresden manuscript, preserved in the Saxon State and University Library’
[11] Friedrich Schneider, ‘Zur Geschichte der Jagd in Sachsen’ (Sächsisches Staatsministerium für Umwelt und Landwirtschaft) 'Zur Sicherung der Jagderfolge wurden Jagdgebiete durch „Hages“ (dichte Hecken) abgegrenzt. Kurfürst August ließ 1565 einen Wildzaun entlang der gesamten Grenze zu Böhmen errichten'. <>.
[12] Richard Almond, ‘The Hunting Year’, History Today, 2005, p. 3 <> [accessed 30 July 2014].
[13] Jane S. Peters, ‘Early Drawings by Augustin Hirschvogel’, Master Drawings, 17 (1979), 359–435 (p. 377).
[14] Peters, p. 12.
[15] Almond, Medieval Hunting. p.3 from the chapter on ''Bestis' and 'Crafte''
[16] Dalby, p. xv.
[17] Almond, ‘The Hunting Year’, p. 3.


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