Simon Schama assesses taxidermy in British art over time:
While the bestiary has long been close to the heart of British modernism, its obsessions have generally been not horsey but sheepish and cow-eyed, with an ironic yen for exploring the weird connection between butchery, sacrifice and salvation enshrined in Christian iconography.
Damien Hirst’s “Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain” (2007), for example, with its bovine, arrow-pierced martyrdom, has all kinds of precedents, not just in the multiple piercings of Piero del Pollaiuolo’s 15th-century Sebastian but also in Rembrandt’s “Flayed Ox” of the 1650s, the latter a meaty martyrdom for the Calvinists, the carcase strung out on its wooden cross like an even more animal version of the younger Rembrandt’s Passion paintings with their tragically beastly torment and howling.
“There is a kind of tragedy about all those pieces,” Hirst has said of his bisected and formaldehyded animals, and, however laconic he comes across, almost all of his strongest work taps into that most forgotten but deepest strain in British culture its ancient perfervid religiosity.
(Image from an old Hirst exhibition)