Claws, Paws and Prints

Martin Schongauer, A Griffin (15th century) Engraving on paper. Unique impression. Metropolitan Museum, New York

Many animals, like cats, dogs or the mythical griffin, have sharp claws. Let loose in a house, some of these charmers will engrave table legs, floor boards or virtually anything wooden. Artists who naturally have acute visual perception often relate this type of instinctual behavior to their own woodcut practice. They, too, are so well trained that they are barely conscious when using a chisel or brush that they are using a tool. It instinctively becomes part of their body in a psychological process known today as "flow". They have done it so many times that, like animals, they just go with the flow.

Dürer, St. Jerome in his Study (1514) with detail enlarged

We have already shown how Albrecht Dürer used the claws of a lion as a visual metaphor for how he himself engraved his famous woodcut of St. Jerome.1 And in identifying his artisanal practice with the lion, Jerome's attribute, Dürer naturally identifies with the intellect and spirituality of the studious and contemplative saint because, in art, craft and intellect or craft and spirituality go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other.

Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet, A Dog (c. 1475) 

In this example by The Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet, a dog does likewise. The dog's front paw claws the ground in the same direction as the engraved lines underneath the hatched ones. Even the way the leg stretches to the lower left corner of its bodily form, the apparent edge of the image, suggests the extended arm of an artist at work.  

And the dog's hind leg touches its head (read, mind, intellect or spirit.) This indicates, as in the Dürer, that craft and intellect are combined. Here in this unique impression in the Rijksmuseum the Master, whoever he was, confirms his status as a visual poet. It's a modest engraving but, with it, he passes on his knowledge of nature's unity and the creative process to other visual artists not-yet-born, centuries into the future.

Martin Schongauer, St. George and the Dragon (15th century) with enlarged detail

Martin Schongauer who engraved the griffin at top endowed it with similar meaning, its claws a symbol for his chisel. And here, in another example by him, St. George's dragon chiseling into rock like a sculptor becomes a metaphor once more for his own act of engraving. And given that the dragon's paws are at the edge of the image with its head turned over its shoulder, the dragon adopts the position and pose of an artist looking in the mirror to paint his self-portrait. For an explanation for why the edge of an image is so meaningful, see "Pointing at the Edge."

1. See Dürer's St. Jerome in the Wilderness (1496) and St. Jerome in His Study (1514).

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