Last August 8, our seminary Facebook page posted a witty cartoon about “St. Dominic’s dog” and “St. Peter’s rooster.” Then someone posted a question in the comment thread: Why do we portray Dominic as always having a dog beside him? To those who know the life of the founder of the Friars Preachers, the answer is as easy as just recalling one’s own phone number (unless you’re like me who after 6 months, still looks at his contact list to find it!). People familiar about St. Dominic’s life could easily tell the most repeated answer: In a vision, the mother of Dominic saw that she would give birth to a dog who would set the world on fire with the torch it carries in its mouth. That is why the word “Dominican” when employed with some play on words, results to ‘Domini canis’, meaning, ‘hounds or dogs of the Lord.’” Such was the usual explanation I hear from many people.
The dog which is seen frequently in every iconography of St. Dominic indeed alludes to that vision of Bl. Jane of Aza, St. Dominic’s mother. Bl. Jordan of Saxony (d. 1237), St. Dominic’s first biographer and successor, tells us about this vision in his Libellus:
Before his mother conceived him, she saw in a vision that she would bear in her womb a dog who, with a burning torch in his mouth and leaping from her womb, seemed to set the whole earth on fire.1
However, the usual pun we recognize by associating Dominicanus (a religious who belongs to the Dominican Order) and Domini canis (Dogs/Hounds of the Lord) is bit problematic, or at least, does not sufficiently explain the story behind the Friars Preachers’ popular imagery as “watchdogs of the Lord.”2 In a fresco in Santa Maria Novella Church, Florence for example, we see that the artist, Andrea da Firenze (d. 1415), portrayed the Friars Preachers as dogs attacking a pack of wolves. The scene is an allegory of the mission of the Friars Preachers to combat the heretics through preaching. But come to think of it, this fresco was made ca. 1365-67. By this time, according to the historian Pierre Mandonnet, OP, the appellation Dominicani is not yet in common usage among the friars. In fact, Bl. Humbert of Romans (d. 1277), fifth Master General of the Order, admonished the brethren not to use any appellations other than “Friars Preachers” in referring to themselves.3 Therefore to think that the play on words “Domini canis” may have inspired the artist of Santa Maria Novella or the early tradition of portraying the Friar Preachers as watchdogs is incorrect. “The dog, then, as a symbol of the Friar Preacher, did not originate through the belated term ‘Dominican’,” Mandonnet concluded.4
Then how come Dominicans became known as “watchdogs of the Lord?” The dog seem to be a well-known imagery for preachers in hagiographies or other religious literature at that time. For example, St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) identified preachers as dogs whose “assiduous preaching, like troublesome barking, forces the adversaries… to abandon the flock of sheep.”5 St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who died 17 years before St. Dominic’s birth, was also portrayed as a “barking dog” in his early biography entitled Vita prima Sancti Bernardi: “He will be the guardian of God’s house, and like a guard dog he will bark against the great enemies of the faith. He will be a famous preacher…”6 A gloss on Is. 56:10 reads: “To bark means to preach. The preacher, therefore, is spoken as a dog…”7
When we find the Friars Preachers referring to themselves as watchdogs, they were actually assuming a popular imagery related to their ministry. Their being “hounds of the Lord” is not suggested by some play on words (Dominicani, Domini canis) but by their exercise of the ministry once reserved before for bishops—preaching. The vision of Bl. Jane of Aza about St. Dominic as a “dog with a burning torch in its mouth” is a reference on how her son would be an “an eminent preacher” who by “barking sacred knowledge,” (preaching) would bring back the world to God’s fold.8 And since the band of brothers established by St. Dominic is a preaching Order, the Dominicans share from their saintly founder the same noble imagery by virtue of their ministry. As time progressed, this symbol became more associated with the Dominicans as the ministry of preaching became more associated with their Order than any other order in existence during those days. As Stephen Salagnac (d. 1291), another biographer of St. Dominic, wrote: “Indeed, it is by dogs that we designate the Preachers, of whom Dominic is the father and the leader.” 9 A Dominican visionary at the end of the 13th century would add a curious detail about these watchdogs: They are sons of a Spotted Dog. □
Lehner, OP, Francis, ed. St. Dominic: Biographical Documents. Washington: Thomist Press, 1964.
Mandonnet, OP, Pierre. St. Dominic and His Work, trans., Mary Benedicta Larkin, OP. London: B. Herder Book Co., 1945.
O’Connor, John B. St. Dominic and the Order of Preachers. New York: Holy Name Bureau. 1916.
1 Francis Lehner, OP, ed., St. Dominic: Biographical Documents (Washington: Thomist Press, 1964), 7.
2 “This [title] was in recognition of the well-known vigilance of the Order in safeguarding the rights of the Church, and its jealous watchfulness lest heresy mar the beauty of God’s eternal truth.” John B. O’Connor, St. Dominic and the Order of Preachers (New York: Holy Name Bureau, 1916), 21.
3 Pierre Mandonnet, OP, St. Dominic and His Work, trans., Mary Benedicta Larkin, OP (London: B. Herder Book Co., 1945), 449.
4 P. Mandonnet, St. Dominic and His Work, 450.
5 P. Mandonnet, St. Dominic and His Work, 451.
6 William of Saint-Thierry, The First Life of Bernard of Clairvaux, trans. Hilary Costelo (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2015), 5.
7 P. Mandonnet, St. Dominic and His Work, 451.
8 Francis Lehner, OP, ed., St. Dominic: Biographical Documents, 7.
9 P. Mandonnet, St. Dominic and His Work, 455.