Dog Portrait of a Saint Bernard
British School, late 19th/early 20th century
Oil on canvas
11-1/2 x 11-1/2 inches (18 x 18 w/frame)
Ex. collection: Burn Hall Manor, Durham England
In order to help struggling trekkers on the Great St. Bernard Pass —a route through the Alps between Italy and Switzerland—at over 8000 feet, an Augustine monk named St. Bernard de Menthon founded a hospice and monastery around the year 1050.
Sometime in the 1600s, the monks at Great St. Bernard Hospice acquired their first St. Bernards—descendants of the mastiff style Asiatic dogs brought over by the Romans—to serve as their watchdogs and companions. Compared to St. Bernards today, these dogs were smaller in size, had shorter reddish brown and white fur and a longer tail.
At start of the 18th century, servants called marroniers were assigned to accompany travelers over the pass. By 1750, marroniers were routinely accompanied by the dogs, whose broad chests helped to clear paths for travelers. The marroniers soon discovered the dogs' tremendous sense of smell and ability to discover people buried deep in the snow, and sent them out in packs of two or three alone to seek lost or injured travelers.
The canines made rescue excursions on the St. Bernard Pass for the next 150 years. Often the dogs would find buried travelers, dig through the snow and lie on top of the injured to provide warmth. Meanwhile, the other dog would return to the hospice to alert the monks of the stranded pilgrim. The system became so organized that when Napoleon and his 250,000 soldiers crossed through the pass between 1790 and 1810, not one soldier lost his life. The soldiers' chronicles tell of how many lives were saved by the dogs.
Although in legend casks of liquor were strapped around the dogs' collars to warm up travelers, no historical records exist that document this practice.
The St. Bernard rescue dogs were credited with saving the lives of more than 2,000 people until the last documented recovery in 1897 when a 12-year-old boy was found nearly frozen in a crevice and awakened by a dog. One fine example, Barry, was said to have saved as many as 100 lives. In 1815, Barry's body was put on exhibit at the Natural History in Berne, Switzerland where it remains today.