Saints in Chains

March 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Deliverance of St. Peter, Raffaello, 1514









St. Peter’s Chains, S. Pietro in Vincoli

Gods in Chains

March 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Elephants have a long history of use in temples. However, their roles in most temples have changed significantly over time. Hundreds of years ago when elephants were used in warfare, they were kept in temples -in between battles- as symbols of strength and victory. The practical decision to keep elephants in temples when they were not used led to the cultural and religious belief that elephants were an essential part of Kerala’s historical culture. People began to donate them to temples as symbols of one of the most popular Hindu deities, Lord Ganapati. Now even temples that have no relation to Lord Ganapati keep elephants: they are looked upon as symbols of status by the temples to encourage more donations. In recent years, churches and mosques have also started using elephants at major occasions. Politicians often donate elephants to boost approval ratings. Temples in Kerala have significantly more elephants that anywhere else in India. The nationally renowned Guruvayoor temple houses 63 elephants, all given as gifts. The area around Thrissur in Kerala has over 500 temples, with approximately 250 captive elephants available for functions. Each temple has 2-5 major festivals between November and May, resulting in a strong demand for pachyderms.”

Rhea Ghosh, Gods in Chains

“Whenever we speak about elephants, we invariably take pride in the long cultural relationship between elephant and people in the country. There is no other example of a relationship between an animal and humans that is so remarkable for its splendor and contrast, of an animal that has been slaughtered and, at the same time, deified. This relationship goes back at least 4000 years to the Harappan period and almost certainly beyond.”

“To shackle such a god, to illtreat it or, worse, to ignore its plight would be a tragedy that history would not forgive our nation.”

Raman Sukumar, from the forward to Gods in Chains, Rhea Ghosh

Photo by Vinoth Chandar

Shiva and Dionysus

March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Herodotus writes that India, the most remote, fantastical and climatically harsh place on Earth, is the nation that lies farthest to the east, and that beyond it lies desert, a wasteland of giant ants but abundant gold. While Roman writers would associate the Greek god Dionysus with the Hindu Shiva, Herodotus, though he writes nothing about Indian deities, establishes the possibility of an intermediary figure between Dionysus and Shiva: the Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris. He states that Dionysus is called Osiris in Egypt, is believed to rule the underworld, and is the only deity other than Isis who is worshiped throughout Egypt, and that his son, Horus, is Apollo.” (1)
“Several classical European authors even believed that such ‘Hindu’ ideas as metempsychosis [that the souls of animals travel into the bodies of other animals after death] had been brought back to Europe by the Greek gods themselves. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and mystical ecstasy was purported to have journeyed to India, subdued the Aryan and Dravidian peoples, absorbed their philosophies, and returned to Europe with their chief ideas. Euripides describes Dionysus in Bacchae (406 B.C.) as a provider of knowledge and the conqueror of Arabia, Persia and Bactria”. (2)
“The triumphal march of Dionysus (or Bacchus, as he was generally known in Rome) through the lands of India was equated in Roman thought with the triumph of the deceased over death. His mythical victorious return from India on an elephant’s back, or in a chariot drawn by elephants, was shown in sculpted sarcophagi. Since Dionysiac processions symbolically reflected the joy of victory over death, the presence of elephants, which were believed to be favorites of the Sun-god gave further point to the triumph of light over darkness.” (3)

(1) Cowan R. The Indo-German Identification: Reconciling South Asian Origins and European Destinies, 1765-1885.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Scullard H.H. The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World.
Images:  Shiva, contemporary chromolithograph; Bacchus, Caravaggio, c.1595; Sarcophagus, Roman, c.190

Gods on Earth

March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Pope Leo the Lion

March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

If you believe, oh elephant, that you serve a lion of Libya,
You are deceiving yourself,
This lion has fallen from the sky.

Giovanni Capitone Aretino, 1514

“This lion” refers to Pope Leo X, and “oh elephant” to Annone.  (In 1514 there were still lions in North Africa, along with the Atlas bear and Barbary leopard, but no more elephants. More than a millennium before, thousands of North African mammals had been hunted, captured and taken to Rome to be slaughtered in public spectacles. The Barbary lion was extinct in the wild by 1922. A few leopards persist.)

Since the early 20th century, Lion of Libya has referred to Omar Mukhtar, leader of a guerrilla resistance to Italian colonialism from 1912 until he was captured and hanged in 1931. In 2009, while on a state visit to Rome, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, another Lion of Libya, wore a photograph of Mukhtar hanging on his chest. A film  about Mukhtar, “Lion of the Desert”, originally banned in 1982 by Italian authorities, was broadcast on national television during Gadffi’s visit.

Pope and Elephant

March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment


If you believe, oh elephant, that you serve a lion of Libya,
You are deceiving yourself,
This lion has fallen from the sky.
This is your master, the chief glory of the earth,
With the triple tiara crowning his head.
Among the mortals he is held to be more than mortal,
It is him that has been given to open and close the heavens.
If to serve god is indeed to reign,
You will reign in serving Leo
For he is god on earth…

Giovanni Capitone Arentino. Written on the arrival of Annone and the Portuguese delegation in Rome, March, 1514.

L. from The Ghent Altar, VanEyck, 1432.
R. Seated Ganesh, Karnataka, 13th c.

Other Images of Elephants

March 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

By artists who had not, most probably, seen the elephant.

From Der Nature Bloeme, Jan van Maerlant, c. 1270

From Der Nature Bloeme, Jan van Maerlant, c. 1270

Spain, c. 1400

Other Pachyderms in Europe

March 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Thirteen Asian elephants, at least, were imported into Europe via Portugal during the sixteenth century. No elephants entered, so far as is known, from Egypt or the Levant. Of the elephants brought in through Lisbon, one reached Rome, two got to Vienna by different routes, one arrived at Madrid, and one lodged for a period at Dieppe before being taken across the channel to England. On its peregrinations from Lisbon to other European cities, the Asian elephant was viewed for the first time by throngs of Frenchmen, Englishmen, Spaniards, Italians, Flemings, Walloons, and Germans, as brief stopovers were made in urban centers such as Alicante, Civitavecchia, Genoa, Milan, Brussels, Antwerp, Cologne, and in many smaller towns and villages.”  D. F. Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe, Vol. II

Of course many elephants, Indian and African, had been seen in Europe well before the sixteenth century, beginning in 280 BC with 20  in the army of Pyrrhus of Epirus; 37 war elephants in Hannibal’s army during the Second Punic War (218-203 BC); an elephant brought by emperor Claudius, during the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, to the British capital of Colchester; Abul-Abbas, an Asian elephant given to Charlemagne by Harun ar-Rashid in AD 797 or 802; the Cremona elephant, presented to Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor by Al-Kamil in 1229; the elephant given by Louis IX of France to Henry III of England, for his menagerie in the Tower of London in 1255; the elephant given by Afonso V of Portugal to René d’Anjou about 1477; an elephant presented to Ercole d’Este in 1497 by the merchants of Cyprus. Rhinoceroses were also imported, including one (which also came to Italy via Portugal) immortalized in Durer’s woodcut , and Clara, who toured Europe for 17 years in the mid 18th century.

The Cremona elephant, a gift to Emperor Frederick II from Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt in 1229.

Rhinoceros drawing by Albrecht Durer, 1515

Rhinoceros woodcut, Durer, 1515

Rhinoceros known as Clara,  by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus, 1749

Clara, by Pietro Longhi, 1751

Images of Annone

March 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Annone, Giulio Romano after Raffaello, 1516









King Manuel I riding an elephant, from Lietura Nova, first half 16th century

Annone, woodcut c.1514

4 Studies of an Elephant, by Giulio Romano, 1514-1518

“The Wheel of the Elephant”, S. Fanti, 1526


March 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Annone is the Italian name given to a young, white elephant, purchased in Cochin, on the southwest coast of India, by Portuguese traders in 1511 and transported by ship to Lisbon. There he joined a menagerie of exotic animals belonging to King Manuel I, collected from around the rapidly expanding Portuguese empire. When Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici became Pope Leo X in 1513, King Manuel sent ships loaded with treasures, including the elephant, to Rome as part of an elaborate gift intended to dazzle the Pope and win support for Portugal’s empire building project. The elephant instantly charmed Leo and become his beloved pet. Indeed, all of Rome was smitten by the beast, which became the toast of the city. Annone was housed inside the Vatican in a specially built enclosure and pampered by Leo who visited him almost daily. Until his untimely death on June 8, 1516, Annone played a significant role in the pageantry and public life of Rome, inspiring artists, poets and political satirists. Devastated by the elephant’s demise, Pope Leo commissioned the artist Raffaello to paint Annone’s portrait. The life-size fresco was installed on a wall near St.Peter’s, together with a commemorative plaque written by the pope himself, and remained there for nearly a hundred years.

This blog will tell Annone’s story, and a bigger story of elephants in art and imagination, in the hope of inspiring a new generation of artists and writers, as we approach the 500th anniversary of his official arrival in Rome in March, 2014.

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