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Wolf and Cow playing Backgammon: a curious viennese mural~

3 min read

This is a crazy medieval mural preserved on the side of a Viennese house. In the 15th century, Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini, better known later in life with the name of Pope Pius II, described all the nice houses of Vienna as being painted inside and out with fabulous scenery. As says the marginalia found in illuminated manuscripts, the houses would have featured religious and historic portraiture, but also some humorous imagery. Moreover, a 15th century description of Vienna claims that all of the burghers’ houses were adorned with splendid paintings both on the inside and on the outside.

The major part of this medieval murals have mostly been destroyed by time, overpainted or simply erased by wind and weather and there are no watercolours, prints or other illustrations documenting their appearance, but one in particular can be seen still today on a house in Vienna’s historic center. This is the facade of the Hasenaus (“Hare House”), a seemingly inconspicuous house in Bäckerstrasse 12, which represent a wolf and a cow engaged in a game of backgammon. Behind the board there are the legs of a man, dressed in red, who appears to be holding a fly swatter, perhaps to attend to the players, or to chase away a fly from before the cow’s eyes.

If you look up something about this painting, it’s probably you get one of this explanations of its meaning.
You’ll be enchanted with a twisted, romantic story about an involving a judge called Hieronymus Kuh, that would be “Jerome Cow” in English, and his beautiful daughter who lived at the time of duke Rudolf IV (in the mid 14th century). A story, however, invented only in the 19th century, and can’t be true for the simple fact that the painting was only executed at the beginning of the 16th century (more or less contemporary to the decoration of the Hasenhaus).
Another possible explanation for this silly scene is that it is an allegory about political tensions between Protestants and Catholics, and it’s not clear who’s winning. However, that interpretation, was brought up only in 1883 by local historian Wilhelm Kisch and is based only on the erroneous assumption that the painting dates to the late 18th century when anti-Protestant polemics were indeed widespread in Vienna.
Others have suggested that the man behind the game is a furrier eagerly awaiting the conclusion of the game so he can take the hide of the loser.
So, as a summary? We simply got no idea what message the painting is trying to convey!

But historically, the wall painting dates approximately to 1509, and the house would have been originally been covered with scenes of medieval life, in particular about a rabbit hunt (hence its name). But when it was restored in the 18th century, all was lost except the backgammon game. Ironically, it has been carefully preserved so that Viennese and tourists can admire it, surely wondering what it’s supposed to mean. Certainly a friggin cow, wearing glasses, playing backgammon with a wolf! 😛

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