So There’s a Dog in My Floorboards

by Mark Miles

Before you start to think Bella has somehow gotten lost and found her way under my house, don’t worry. She’s fine, apart from some minor digestive complaints she’s had lately. The dog to which the title of this article refers is another one entirely, one I only discovered recently due to unusual circumstances and close observation. But before I get to that, I have to do some explaining about a particular piece of art.

The piece in question is The Ambassadors, painted in 1533 by Hans Holbein the Younger. It’s a double portrait of two Frenchman, Jean de Tinteville and Georges de Selve, who visited the court of Henry VIII at the same time Holbein was making his second visit to London. The piece is widely considered to be the most ambitious of this phase in Holbein’s career, and it’s not hard to see why. The level of detail invested into every seam, fiber, and surface is astonishing. The garments of Jean de Tinteville, on the left, are enough to make a status-conscious individual in any era start salivating. Similarly the artifacts — which include a globe, a lute, and an astrolabe among other things — are testaments to the wealth of the two men portrayed and the skill of the artist who portrayed them.

But not long after looking at this painting, you’ll probably start to realize that something isn’t quite right. In fact it seems as if Holbein has made a gigantic goof — which looks like some sort of inartistic smear — and has had the ill luck to place it at the bottom center of the painting. “How could anyone with his level of skill and experience make such a catastrophic blunder?” — one might reasonably ask. The question, however, is immediately resolved when the viewer adopts a very awkward angle at the extreme top right or bottom left of the painting. When the viewer does this, something emerges out of the apparent blunder.

The meaning of the skull on the floor sitting in plain sight between two powerful men regaled by symbols of wealth and status is easy to infer. At the end of the day, no matter how much money is in your vault, no matter how many fur coats you have, no matter how many signifiers of wealth and power you possess, you too will ultimately die and leave it all behind. It’s a sobering message, and its presence in the painting assumes added significance when one considers the swathe of bloodshed left in the wake of Henry VIII, at whose court Holbein worked during his stay in London.

“Now how in the world does this relate to a dog in your floorboards?” — you might be asking at this moment. The answer will make more sense if I explain how I came to it. As it turns out, I was sitting on the couch in my living room one day in January, eating a snack before recorder practice, when I happened to glance toward my practice room, which is about fifteen feet from the couch’s position in the living room. Because I was at such a low angle and because there’s no wall between the two rooms at that point, the apparent texture of the wood floor in my practice room was dramatically skewed. It was so skewed in fact that I noticed something I’d never noticed in the ten years I’ve lived in this house. There, in the floorboards, staring back at me with lopsided ears and a silly grin, was the likeness of a dog.

It may be hard to believe, so I’ve included three photos of the wood floor in my practice room, starting with a perpendicular angle and moving to a more sharply acute angle with each frame. (Basically I went from shooting a photo while standing up to shooting a photo while lying on the floor.) The effect is startling.

How exactly this came about is beyond me. I would have to guess it was done by accident, though I suppose there’s a very small chance that the placement of the two boards which comprise the dog’s face was chosen specifically by the foreman who oversaw the installation of the floorboards as a kind of practical joke or Easter egg for anyone living in the house. Perhaps he was imitating Holbein, perhaps not. It’s impossible to say for sure. At the end of the day, nature must take the greatest share of credit for this portrait, which demonstrates more clearly than ever that the best way for us to gain a new appreciation of our surroundings is to adopt an unconventional angle from which to view them.

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18 thoughts on “So There’s a Dog in My Floorboards

  1. ashiftinconsciousness February 18, 2017 / 3:00 am

    During many years of working in residential construction, I found lots of beautiful designs in pieces of wood. In many I was able to see faces or other objects. The same with clouds. I’ve always been able to see things out of the ordinary that caused others to call me weird.

    Nice post.

    • Mark Miles February 20, 2017 / 6:08 am

      Thank you. It was interesting because I only noticed the face of the dog after I’d seen a documentary that referenced the painting; I suppose the one made it possible for me to see the other.

      Have a good week. 👋

  2. sledpress February 18, 2017 / 3:04 am

    I frequently detect faces in the contour of a drape or bedclothes, all dependent on the angle.

    Ah for the grand era of allegorical painting. Are you familiar with Robertson Davies’ Cornish trilogy, incidentally?

    • Mark Miles February 20, 2017 / 6:11 am

      No, I’m not as conversant with art history as music history, though I’m trying to remedy that. And there’s certainly much to be said for art that invites deeper thought on meaningful topics, rather than merely serving as window dressing for capitalism.

      • sledpress February 20, 2017 / 4:02 pm

        Well, the Cornish books are a novel cycle not a work of history, but the second of the three books (all devoted in different ways to the arts) is the life story of a man who learns to paint in the allegorical style, ultimately producing a painting which tells his own story in the symbolic language of Holbein’s time. It’s been a painful story up to that point, and after painting it he lays down his brush and lives out his career as an art appraiser and critic, until the day he is confronted at an auction with a work by someone curators have identified only as “the Alchemical Master,” which is of course his own painting — for various reasons he was tutored not only in painting but in antique-faking, and did a good job of it. Along the way the book gave me more insight into the conventions of that style than a whole semester of undergraduate art history focused on the period. The third book of the trilogy BTW is the salute to music, and there’s a lost opera of E.T. A. Hoffmann, so fun.

  3. Rohvannyn February 18, 2017 / 3:19 am

    That was great! I couldn’t resist sharing it.

  4. Misty Meadows Homestead February 18, 2017 / 9:28 pm

    I really enjoyed this post and your writing style. I have never seen that painting and found it quite fascinating. Anyway, I actually stopped by to thank you for visiting our blog recently. I’m so glad you did because it lead me here. I hope you will visit again and even consider following us back. Have a great weekend.

  5. Mark Miles February 20, 2017 / 6:17 am

    Unfortunately my camera put too much detail into the contours of the image; I’ve actually shown it to others in person who’ve told me, before I’d explained the image, that they recognized the likeness of a dog. Of course from another angle it would most likely appear to be nothing, which is perhaps the most interesting aspect of it.

  6. Rock-Hopper February 20, 2017 / 9:39 am

    I went to check out the painting analysis after reading your post. Quite interesting!

  7. angelasommers February 21, 2017 / 6:27 am

    I very much enjoyed this post, and how you came from Holbein’s painting to the dog in your floorboards. I loved how artists in the days gone by were able to “sneak in” allegories and messages that they otherwise couldn’t convey – or weren’t allowed to – brilliant post, thanks for sharing!

    • Mark Miles February 27, 2017 / 4:24 am

      Thank you so much. I’m amazed by the ingenuity of artists throughout history, especially those who spoke truth to power, however surreptitiously.

  8. Timi Townsend February 24, 2017 / 2:42 pm

    Quite an impressive post, Mark, one that I’m glad I read. Not only is Holbein the Younger’s _The Ambassadors_ one of my favorite Northern Renaissance paintings, but your parallel experience with your floorboards, and the meaning you extrapolate from the discovery of these images, strikes a chord in me and makes me reflect on the nature of experience.

    A side note or two: one reason I like _The Ambassadors_ so much is, of course, its inclusion of a lute (since I am a lutenist). And I note that you play recorder. Were you getting ready for a practice with a consort, or an individual rehearsal? What kind of music do you play, and do you play all voices of the recorder?

    • Mark Miles February 27, 2017 / 4:33 am

      Unfortunately I live in a small town with a limited arts scene and have no ensemble with which to play at the moment. In addition I only started playing recorder three years ago, so I’m still in my apprenticeship phase, so to speak. And I play alto recorder primarily, though I also play soprano occasionally. The alto is my home base.

      Glad to become acquainted with someone who shares an appreciation for such a rich historical era.

      • Timi Townsend February 27, 2017 / 6:44 pm

        You play quite well, indeed, especially given that you’ve been at it only three years! I prefer alto to soprano, as a listener, that is. Although I used to play flute, I never was able to pick up the recorder.
        Yes, it is nice to encounter another person interested in this somewhat arcane and esoteric era! 🙂

  9. lexandneek February 24, 2017 / 6:13 pm

    Hi Mark! Thank you for liking our “Do You Recognize this Place? – Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce, California” blogpost. I really enjoyed reading this post especially about the memento morii in the Han Holbein painting. And I do see the dog in your floorboard with its tongue sticking out!

  10. Courtney April 16, 2017 / 3:19 pm

    Groucho Marx was consistently present in the terrazzo floor (halfway down the third pew on the right hand of the cross) of the Catholic Church my family attended while I was growing up. He kept my childhood brain well entertained during droning homilies for years, underscoring that it’s all in how we approach the subject matter, right?

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