ANIMAL ART OF THE DAY: Today is the “Feast of the Ass” so here’s a donkey dish

Dish (Piatto): Man Washing the Mouth of an Ass
Italian, Deruta, c. 1550–60
Maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware)
Metropolitan Museum of Art

January 14th is Feast of the Ass day! Yes, that’s a real thing — it was a niche Christian medieval feast day celebrated primarily in France as part of the Feast of Fools. But lest you think this meant the donkey was celebrated in a wholly positive light, you might want to consider what the inscription on this plate actually says…

The dish as seen on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with the inscription translated on the label: “he who washes the head of an ass wastes the soap.” [photos by author]

The small town of Deruta in central Italy produced wares noted for a harmony of shape and ornamentation combined with impressive decorative effect. This large plate carries a lively genre subject. A donkey, seated in a chair with a towel around his neck, is having his head scrubbed, a reference to a moralizing medieval Italian proverb: “E inutile lavare la testa all’asino” (“It is useless to wash an ass’s head.”). The inscription on the chair, “Chi lava el ch[a]po a l’asen[o] se perderanno el sapone,” (He who washes an ass’s head wastes the soap) tells of the wasteful, worthless task of this hapless soul.

[Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Wow, rude!

The Ass, aka Donkey (Equus africanus asinus), whose smiling face I would happily wash any day of the week.

It turns out that donkey symbolism in European art is…complicated. Fortunately, there is a new book by Kathyrn L. Smithies that can help us decipher these representations, Introducing the Medieval Ass (bonus points for the fun title!). I finally just got my copy after many weeks of shipping delays, and I’m happy to report it was worth the wait! 🙂

The book takes readers through the “rich, paradoxical reputation” of this animal, which could alternately garner praise or condemnation, and represent virtue or sin. And while the book is focused on the medieval period, its final chapter, “The Medieval Ass in the Post-Medieval Era,” makes it relevant to our Renaissance period piece here as well:

By the end of the Middle Ages (c. 1500), the ass had a universal reputation as a paradoxical beast. It was remarkable but unremarkable; everyone would have known the ass and, despite its supposed stubbornness, it was outstanding for its work ethic. It was profane and holy; not just the bearer of salvation and an exemplar for the good Christian, it also represented the sinful, the flawed and unbeliever. It was clever but also irrational; Balaam’s ass knew not to disobey God’s word, whilst proponents of scholastic arguments were reduced to the level of asses and — asinine and absurd. It was part of the natural world, although some of its behaviors, and their outcomes (mules), were considered unnatural. The multifaceted impressions of the medieval ass left a legacy that persisted into later historical eras.

[Introducing the Medieval Ass, pp. 111-113]

One last thing — during the course of researching this piece of art I learned that donkey milk soap is a thing, and sometimes you can even find it in the shape of a donkey:

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