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Vienna, Austria

Wolf and Cow Playing Backgammon Mural

A silly medieval mural preserved on the side of a Viennese house. 

In the 15th century, Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini, better known later in life as Pope Pius II, described all the fine houses of Vienna as being painted inside and out with fabulous scenery. Like the marginalia found in illuminated manuscripts, the houses would have featured religious and historic portraiture, along with some humorous imagery for good measure.

These medieval murals have mostly been destroyed by time, but one, of the humorous variety, can be seen today on a house in Vienna’s historic center. The facade of the Hasenaus (“Hare House”) features a wolf and a cow in spectacles engaged in a game of backgammon. Behind the board are the legs of a man, who appears to be holding a fly swatter, perhaps to attend to the players.

One explanation for this absurd scene is that it is an allegory for the political tensions between Protestants and Catholics. It’s not clear who’s winning. 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.

The wall painting dates approximately to 1509. The house would have been originally been covered with scenes of medieval life, in particular one large motif of a rabbit hunt (hence the name). But when it was refurbished in the 18th century, all but the backgammon game was lost. Luckily, it has been carefully preserved so that Viennese and visitors alike can admire it, wondering what it’s supposed to mean. 

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