As I was researching the sport of falconry for our recent event and demonstration a few weeks ago, I found myself going down a “falconry in art” rabbit hole. Our Library really is a wonderful repository. We have several shelves of books with titles like The Art of Falconry (1943), American Falconry in the Twentieth Century (1999), Practical Falconry; to which is added, How I Became a Falconer (1972), Falconry for You (1960), and Falconry and Art (1987). Grabbing the last title, I sat on the floor of the Library and dug in. I never noticed how much falconry is portrayed throughout art and really, how early it is shown: 4th-century Etruscan tomb decorations, an 8th-century Mesopotamian stele, and a 13th-century bas-relief in Turkey (pictured below).
Of course, one of the most familiar images of a falcon is in Egyptian iconography, the god Horus, who was depicted with the body of a man and head of a falcon. Interestingly, no images of a falcon in captivity exist nor is there a hieroglyphic symbol for falconry, which suggests that the sport was not practiced in Egypt. Likewise, there are no images in early Greek or Roman art, possibly for the same reason.
Coinciding with the rise of falconry in the Western Middle Ages was the rise of its depiction in art. The 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry shows several instances of King Harold with a hawk on his arm. In one, he is presenting it as a gift to William of Normandy.
One of the most well-known works in art history is Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413-1416), a devotional book, known as a Book of Hours. Amongst the psalms and prayers are calendars, each month alternating between depictions of agricultural and courtly life. The month of August shows a scene of men on horseback and women seated aside with them, along with a groom in front, carrying raptors on their arms.
A century or so later, birds of prey were included in The Lady with a Unicorn tapestry series. Dating from the late 15th to early 16th centuries, the six tapestries are thought to be allusions to the five senses with a sixth tapestry whose subject is unknown. Depictions of animals, both real and mythical, are interwoven throughout.
On the other side of the world, falconry was a frequent presence in Eastern culture and, therefore, art. Terracotta figures found in Japanese burial mounds, known as haniwa, include figures of falconers. The one depicted below is from the Kofun Period (c. 250–c. 600 CE). These were life size and placed on top of graves.
A 16th-century drawing, Mirza Ali Haft Awrang of Jami, from a Persian Royal Manuscript shows a falconer with his hawk on the left-gloved hand and an injured duck in his right. The glove he uses looks detailed and contains some of the only remaining color.
From 18th-century India is a Portrait of a rajah, goshawk on fist, currently housed in the Louvre in Paris. It shows a strong profile view of a man with a falcon perched on his glove, looking back at him.
We continue to see falconry throughout the Western Renaissance and into the 18th and 19th centuries. As the popularity of the sport ebbs and flows so does its prominence within artistic tradition. So what, then, do we have in the 21st century to represent this ancient sport? Photographs. Copyright laws prevent me from producing them here, but I invite you to Google “21st-century falconry photography.” Beautiful contemporary images appear of men and women continuing in the tradition of the medieval lords and ladies in Les Tres Riches Heures and the Indian Rajah holding a goshawk.
Falconry has, literally, withstood the test of time, remaining relevant in a modern world. The art produced throughout the centuries proves this. I’m eager to see what will be created next.
Falconers from Ruins of Bogazkab : Christian Antoine de Chamerlat, Falconry and Art, London, Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd, 1987.
Egyptian god Horus: By Jeff Dahl – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3280569Image of the Egyptian god Horus.
Bayeux Tapestry: Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry in Reading. The website has the entire story broken down by scene – certainly worth a click! http://www.bayeuxtapestry.org.uk/bayeux7.htm
Tres Riche Heures: By Limbourg brotheres – R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojedachateaudechantilly.com, Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108570 . The Book of Hours is currently housed at the Musee Conde outside of Paris, France http://www.domainedechantilly.com/en/accueil/chateau/reading-room/selected-works/
Lady with the Unicorn: Taste: http://tchevalier.com/unicorn/tapestries/taste.html, Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2724262
Currently housed at the Museum of the Middle Ages, Paris, France
Haniwa falconer: https://jref.com/articles/japanese-falconry.217/ . A wonderful resource on Japanese falconry.
Mirza Ali Haft Awrang of Jami: Christian Antoine de Chamerlat, Falconry and Art, London, Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd, 1987.
Portrait of a Rajah, goshawk on fist: Christian Antoine de Chamerlat, Falconry and Art, London, Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd, 1987.
Resource on the Bayeux Tapestry: Robin S. Oggins, The Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England. Yale University Press, 2004.
Lauren Kraut is the Collections Manager at the National Sporting Library & Museum. Her primary focus is to maintain and preserve the works of art in the collection and on loan. Email her at lkraut@NationalSporting.org