A&E / Archive

The Hound of St. Dominic: A look at the elusive mystery surrounding this painting and its painter, Juan de Pareja.

During a trip to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I encountered an exhibit set back in a small room on the second floor of the gallery. The exhibit was called “Juan de Pareja: A Painter’s Story.” The room looked dark; the only light visible from afar was shining on the painting the exhibit focused on: “Dog with a Candle and Lilies.”

As I walked closer to this canine figure, I began to examine the work. The dog’s eyes seem to gaze deep into your soul if you stare too long. The candle, lit in the dog’s mouth, burns bright, its flame leaping upward. However, the dog lies still and doesn’t seem like a threat. (If a dog was running around with a lit candle in its mouth, I’d be a bit more worried.)

The lilies lie on the ground as well, next to the dog. But they’re not wilted. In fact, there are buds that haven’t even bloomed yet. The flowers are still very much alive even though they lie on the floor. The artist signs his name in brown ink underneath the dogs’ paws.

Juan de Pareja was born in 1606 in Antequera, Spain and was enslaved to Diego Velázquez, a court painter to King Phillip IV. After working under Velázquez, Pareja gained emancipation and then freedom in 1654. He began to work as an independent painter.

Pareja’s name is attached only to 30 works, but 19 of them are now lost. It might be a miracle that this painting has made it to the eyes of scholars and institutions.

According to art historians, this rare painting might even be a fragment of a larger painting of St. Dominic. The rest of the painting has not been discovered, if it does exist. In Latin countries, symbols of St. Dominic include a dog with a candle and, you guessed it, lilies.

Why is a dog with a lit candle representative of St. Dominic? There is a legend that says that St. Dominic’s pregnant mother dreamed that a dog lept from her womb with a torch to burn down everything around them. The image of the dog might also suggest the pun on the word Dominicanus, the name for a Dominican friar that aligns with the Latin domini canis, meaning “dog of the Lord.”

And the bouquet-esque bunch of lilies? These flowers represent St. Dominic’s notable chastity.

I don’t know why this painting captured me. Perhaps it’s the mystery of St. Dominic’s hound and the legend surrounding it. Perhaps it’s Pareja’s incredible story from slave to free man. Perhaps it’s the contrast of colors between the mysteriously illuminated painting in that gallery room at the IMA.

Whatever it might be, Pareja’s inspiration is profound to not only me, but artists and nonartists across the world. His story shows that although you might not be Renoir or Monet, someone will find your legacy and put it in the spotlight it deserves.

Sources: Destination Indy, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Museo del Prado, Newfields, Providence College, Robilant+Voena

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