Staffs in paintings: 2 Shepherd’s crooks

Walter Crane (1845–1915), Diana and Endymion (1883), watercolor and gouache, 55.2 × 78.1 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first article, yesterday, looking at staffs, walking sticks and their relatives in paintings, I considered those from classical mythology, their role in depicting age, and used by the traveller. Far more popular, to the point sometimes of being a visual cliché, is the shepherd’s crook.

For much of the history of painting, most of the population lived not in towns or cities, but in the countryside, where flocks of sheep were commonplace. As a result, allegories and parables involving shepherds were more meaningful than they are today, when only a minority of people in Western cultures are likely to have seen a shepherd or their crook in the flesh.

Figurative references to shepherds are common in the Bible, and so in religious paintings, including the adoration of the infant Christ by shepherds.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), The Adoration of the Shepherds (1689), oil on canvas, 151 × 213 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Le Brun’s late painting of The Adoration of the Shepherds from 1689 is remarkable not just for its marvellous luminosity, but for the sheer number and presence of crooks. I can see five, which must be a record for this popular motif.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682), The Good Shepherd (c 1660), oil on canvas, 123 x 101.7 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Murillo’s The Good Shepherd from about 1660 refers to a metaphor used pervasively in Christian teaching, that of Christ as the good shepherd of his flock of Christians. Unusually, though, the artist depicts Jesus not as an adult but a child, holding his crook in one hand, his other hand stroking the back of a sheep, with the rest of the flock in the distance.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1638), The Good Shepherd (1616), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium. Image by Rama, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s The Good Shepherd from 1616 shows a shepherd hanging on to his crook as he’s being attacked by a wolf. This crook is unusual in having a metal tip which looks purposeful, although its precise function escapes me.

Crooks enjoyed popularity with the rise of social realism in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), Seated Shepherdess (c 1852), oil on canvas, 46.4 × 38.1 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

This is Jean-François Millet’s pioneering social realist painting of a Seated Shepherdess from about 1852. She appears to be pouring her cares down into the crook which she’s using to support her head and upper body.

Jules Breton (1827–1906), The Shepherdess (1870), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Museo Soumaya, Mexico City, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons.

Although Jules Breton’s paintings of shepherds aren’t perhaps as grittily realist, this portrait of The Shepherdess from 1870 delves deeper into the personality of his model and her working life. Her blouse may be clean and white, but the rough coat or cloak which she carries must have been handed down through several previous owners, and she carries her crook high on her shoulder, as if she’s poised to strike with it as if it were a club.

So far, these crooks haven’t been in the least bit crooked, but straight sticks or staffs. As every young reader of Little Bo Peep knows, the true form of the crook has a distinctive curved top.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), Diana and Endymion (1883), watercolor and gouache, 55.2 × 78.1 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This is shown by Walter Crane in his beautiful pastoral watercolour of Diana and Endymion (1883), at the right edge of the painting.

Endymion was a classical Greek mythological character, an Aeolian shepherd. Although accounts differ, there are threads which run that Selene, the Titan goddess of the moon (in Roman terminology, Diana), fell in love with Endymion, when she found him asleep one day. Selene/Diana asked Zeus to grant him eternal youth, which resulted in him remaining in eternal sleep. In spite of his somnolence, Selene/Diana still managed to have fifty daughters by him, by hook or by crook, perhaps.

Paul Sérusier (1864–1927), The Corydon Shepherd (1913), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée Malraux (MuMa), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Le Havre, France. Image by Pymouss, via Wikimedia Commons.

Corydon, whose name probably derives from the Greek name for the lark (bird), became a stock name for shepherds in classical literature. The most prominent of several Corydons is a shepherd in Virgil’s bucolic poems the Eclogues, written around 40 BCE, who falls in love with a boy named Alexis, as shown in the right of Paul Sérusier’s painting of The Corydon Shepherd from 1913.

Tomorrow I will conclude this series by looking at staffs and their ilk as symbols of power and fashion.