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The-Sheep-art - 10/30/02


"The Sheep That Changed the Face of Art and History" by Blacksheep.


NOTE: See also the files: livestock-msg, p-animals-bib, lamb-mutton-msg, wool-clean-msg, wool-hist-msg, felting-msg, spinning-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



NOTE: This article refers to various figures that are not included here. Most of the art sited in this paper may be found at: http://gallery.euroweb.hu/index1.html

Also Oklahoma State University has pictures of these breeds on line at:




The Sheep That Changed the Face

of Art and History

by Blacksheep


One of the most beautiful and yet commonplace images in the art of the Medieval and Renaissance periods is the portrayal of sheep and lambs.  Each artist used the animals common to his homeland as models for his creations.  The study of these portrayals can give us an idea of the changes that took place in the sheep of Europe during a time when there were few natural studies written or breeding records kept.  These artistic images can also allow us to make assertions on the origins of modern breeds and trace the economic and aesthetic influence of a North African sheep on the whole of Continental Europe.  This paper will attempt to trace the origins and influence of the Merino sheep mainly in art, but also in literature and natural studies, from the time of its appearance on the European continent through the Renaissance period.  


           Used in this study were seventeen portrayals by fifteen period artists.  The earliest work is Christ the Good Shepherd (Fig. 9), a mosaic from the fifth century.  The most recent piece echoes the same title, but is a 1660 painting by Bartolome Murillo (Fig.3).  Only one picture each was found from England, Germany or Greece; therefore, the concentration of this study centers in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain.  As supporting material, ancient natural studies were also considered.


           Literature has recorded facts about sheep and wool as far back as the early Roman Empire. Italy was famous for producing woolens of all textures and colors (1).  Pliny classifies sheep into course, medium and fine wool categories (2).  Later the art of various Italian masters seem to bear out these observations.


           After the fall of the Roman Empire and the progression of the Medieval Period, we need to understand that by the eleventh century gold and silver had largely disappeared in the West and the Europeans had to sell goods and services to pay for their imports.  The wool and textile industries provided the bulk of the goods being exported.   These industries centered in the Low Countries, especially the Netherlands, where conditions were favorable for sheep raising.  After the thirteenth century both in England and on the Continent there was a ready cash market for wool.(3)


           With the rapid expansion of trade and the growing lust for luxurious products the Spanish found their “Golden Fleece”.  Actually what they acquired in the early twelfth century was the Merino sheep.  The sheep whose fleece was, and continues to be, the finest ever produced.  They were first brought to Spain by a tribe of Moors from North Africa called the Beni-Merinos.  By 1526 there were some three and one half million Merino sheep in Spain and constituted a major element of the economy.  Since the king of Spain owned large estates in Italy and grazing land was in short supply, he sent flocks of Merino there as well (4) Even with tight controls and severe punishments for exporting the Merino, changes in body type and wool characteristics in the sheep across Europe including in the Netherlands and the British Isles make it evident that a trickle of Merino blood had begun to run across Europe.


To understand the physical characteristics of the Merino and thereby look for those characteristics in period portrayals, one needs to examine the art of the Spanish masters of the 1600’s.  Frey Juan Mainos’ Adoration of the Shepherds (Fig. 1) is a beautiful oil on canvas showing a young lamb lying at the base of a manger with its legs bound.  It is solid white with a very woolly head, tiny ears, short face and prominent dewlap.  The dewlap is extra skin that hangs from the neck of some animals, especially that of the very loose and wrinkle-skinned Merino sheep. Mainos’ picture is so detailed as to relate a feeling of wool texture.  The lamb’s fleece appears unusually long, dense and fine, also a characteristic of the Merino sheep.


           Francisco de Zurbarans’ Adoration (Fig. 2) is very much like Mainos’.  They share many of the same breed characteristics, but Zurbarans’ lamb has much more wool on its head, so much so it seems to obscure its eyes from the sight of the viewers.


           Our third Spanish artist, Bartolomi Murillo, creates an image in 1660 entitled Christ the Good Shepherd. (Fig. 3)  The lamb portrayed looks very much like our modern Merino.  The small ears, short nose, woolly face and lower legs, wrinkles and prominent dewlap make this sheep unmistakably Merino.


When the Spanish acquired the Merino, they were quite careful to keep watch over this valuable asset so it was quite by accident the Merino bloodline came to the British Isles.  There is little to tell us the complete story of their introduction, but it is thought sheep from Spain were stowed away on Armada ships that set sail for the coast of Britain.  These sheep, which were intended to provide fresh meat for the sailors, became castaways when at least one of the ships wrecked off the southeastern coast of Scotland.  The sheep swam ashore, interbred with the native mountain sheep, and are the supposed foundation stock for the exceptionally hardy breeds such as the Cheviot. (5) The modern hill breeds of Scotland still closely resemble sheep portrayed by the Dutch masters of the 1600’s. (Fig. 7, 8)


In the Netherlands, as in the British Isles, the Merino were not introduced as pure breeds, but were used for cross breeding.  The changes in the Dutch art are therefore more subtle, but is still obvious.  Recording this change are five pieces done by two different artists.  An altarpiece carved in 1425 by Jan Van Eyck (Fig. 4) shows a somewhat short-fleeced lamb.  His next work Adoration of the Lamb (Fig. 5) shows a sheep not unlike the modern Romney breed.  Both Eycks’ sheep and the Romney show adaptations common to sheep raised in cool, moist climates with abundant pasture.  They have a thick body type, moderately short wool-free legs, and a hornless wool-free head.


           By the middle 1600’s our second Dutch artist, Paulus Potter, paints images of sheep very different from those of Eyck.  In the painting Shepherds (Fig. 6) Potter shows a resting ram with large spiral horns, a woolly head and cheeks.  The ram’s legs also seem to have a light cover of wool.  In 1646 his painting Peasant Family (Fig. 7) shows no horned sheep, but several hornless ewes and lambs.  This picture shows more variety and diversity of sheep than any other examined in this study.  There is a mix of wool growth patterns, but most sheep show woolly heads.  These sheep have a much lighter framed body, more characteristic of a desert animal than the stocky lambs Van Eycks’ shows.  This same body type is represented in Potters 1652 Resting Herd (Fig. 8).  One interesting observation about Potters sheep is their striking resemblance to the modern hill Cheviot of Scotland in both body shape and wool growth pattern.


           Long before the Merino, Italy was known not only for its art, but also its wool production. The Mausoleum of Galla contains a detailed mosaic from the fifth century showing Christ the Good Shepherd. (Fig. 9) The sheep in this mosaic are small and fine boned.  They have long necks, small wool-free heads and clean legs.  In the early 1300’s di Bondone Giottos’ Joachim (Fig. 10) shows sheep, which are much like the mosaic, except Giottos have horns.  Almost two hundred years later in 1482 Sandro Botticel and Domenico Ghirlandaio (Fig. 11, 12) paint not only white sheep, but also black ones.  They are much the same as Giottos’, but are larger and have “Roman” noses and larger drooping ears. Sanzio Raphael in 1507 paints his Madonna and Lamb (Fig. 13) showing much the same type as those before, except his has high set ears.


           Suddenly, in 1580, we see a totally different type of sheep in Italian art.  The sheep of Leandro Bessanos’ Moses Striking the Rock (Fig. 14) have short ears, coupled with very woolly faces and heads.  Their wool is very long.  The neck of the most visible lamb looks thick relative to its length, but its appearance may be from a wool-covered dewlap.  This painting gives strong evidence that the Merino has begun to be an influential part of the Italian landscape.


           From 1200 to the present time the Merino sheep have brought wealth and improvement to the European Community.  Even in a comparative study of Continental art, we cannot escape its presence.  It has changed economies, landscapes, and images in art.  From North Africa to Spain and from Spain to the New World, the revenues from the wool trade have financed countries and kingdoms, wars and explorations.  Without the wealth of the Merino, Spain could not have invested in the risky exploration of a new sea route to India.  This exploration paved the way for the discovery of the New World.  Of all the animals that have made their mark on history, possibly none have so permanently or drastically altered the course of human endeavor, as has this humble sheep.




(1) Strabo, _Geography XII VII from LCL_, Roman Civilization Source Book II: The Empire, ed. Lewis and Reinhold (St. Louis: Reinhold, 1983), p. 156


(2) Pliny the Elder, Natural History, trans. H. Rackman, (London: Harvard University Press, 2000), book 18, p. 268


(3) Greer, Thomas, A Brief History of Western Man, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), p. 153


(4) Attenborough, David, The First Eden, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 1987), pp. 165, 165

(5) Oklahoma State University Research Site on Sheep Breeds, Cheviot Entry, Copyright 1996, 1997, OSU.



Strabo, _Geography XII VII from LCL_, Roman Civilization Source Book II: The Empire, ed. Lewis and Reinhold  (St. Louis: Reinhold, 1983), p. 156


Pliny the Elder, Natural History, trans. H. Rackman, (London: Harvard University Press, 2000), book 18, p. 268


Greer, Thomas, A Brief History of Western Man, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), p. 153


Attenborough, David, The First Eden,(Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 1987), pp. 165, 165


Oklahoma State University Research Site on Sheep Breeds, Cheviot Entry, Copyright 1996, 1997, OSU.



The author has been a shepherd for over 10 years and a shearer for most of that time. She doesn't raise either of these breeds but does raise cross-breeds that conform to the images of the sheep in the British Isles and The Netherlands during the 15-1600's. She has raised one of the Cheviot breeds and shears a friend's flock each year.



Copyright 2002 by Susan C. Childers, 3145 Jackson Pssg, Bloomington Springs TN 38545. <blacksheep at multipro.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org