The Da Vinci Stoat

Added on 08 October 2008

Found this picture whilst trawling through the web yesterday. It's from Thomas Rowlandson's early 19th century The English Dance of Death. I'd love to make this the cover of a Barney Thomson book, because it's almost appropriate. But it would also be completely wrong. Just couldn't be that off the wall.

We went to the Princes Czartoryski Museum in Krakow on Saturday. Boy, the kids were excited about that. This is the museum which houses Da Vinci’s well known painting Lady With An Ermine. I’m not sure if I’d ever heard of Lady With An Ermine before. Maybe I thought it was Lady With An Ermine Earring. At the very best, I imagined it was a woman dressed in ermine. My ignorance is probably due to the fact that I don’t think Dan Brown included it The Da Vinci Code. (I learned everything I know about Da Vinci from Dan Brown.)

So Lady With An Ermine. Apparently she’s beautiful and Da Vinci chose her to be holding an ermine - rather than a dog or an elephant or a giraffe - because there was a play on words with her second name, and blah blah blah, I forget the rest. I reckon he just grabbed the nearest thing to make the picture more interesting. Although that doesn’t explain why there would have been an ermine in the room.

Upstairs there were some Greek and Roman sculptures. It’s easy to look at them and move quickly on without stopping to think. You’ve seen that kind of thing before, one butt-naked statue pretty much blends into the next. But stop and think for a minute.

There was one guy who was depicted just before he killed another guy. (I know, I know, there’s potential for me to have been more specific, but as a travel writer I’m much less Michael Palin - all the information at his fingertips - and more Ewan and Charley - And here’s another church. Yep, this is a church all right, wonder why they built it like this ‘cause it’s fucking amazing...) The guy about to be killed wasn’t depicted. The killer was carrying a spear, which makes sense. You don’t want to go into a duel clutching a roll of toilet paper. However, in the other hand he was holding, and playing, a syrinx (Pan-pipes). (It wasn’t actually Pan himself, the god of sheep and woods and shit, as this guy was fully equipped in the human leg department.)

Anyway, here was the thing. The guy, as they all are, was completely naked. Why did they do that? Could that possibly be a true depiction of the killing incident? He was getting ready for battle, he had his spear, then he thought, what else do I need to get prepped? Ah yes, I need my Pan-pipes, and I need to get out of all these dumb clothes. Tackle to the wind and let slip the dogs of war!

Art. It was just as weird back then as it is now...