It happened at Galleria Accademia.
Strolling through the first of many Italian painting galleries that we would stroll through that day, I was distracted by a flurry of activity, a hushed giggle, a minor interaction in front of a small painting in the corner. An American couple, probably not more than a couple years older than I, were examining the painting closely.
Husband: "See? See?? I told you! It's hilarious!"
Wife (wearing a classic "Really? Seriously? This is what we came to Italy for?" expression on her face): "Mmmmmmmhmm."
They moved on.
Naturally, I had to go see what had so amused Husband, and thus encountered the Brown Cow and the Gray Donkey for the first time.
The painting was one of perhaps a couple hundred we would see over the coming weeks depicting the Birth of the Baby Jesus in the Manger in Bethlehem. The Baby Jesus is kind of a popular subject in Italian and Spanish art, as you'll learn more about as we move through the trip.
This particular painting also featured a Brown Cow and a Gray Donkey in the background of the scene, sharing a stable stall.
And from the looks of things, Gray Donkey was a bit - er - surprised by Brown Cow.
Hence Husband's, and quickly followed by Younger Brother and Traveling Companion's, hilarity.
As we moved past the painting into the next gallery, we began to observe an interesting phenomenon. Previously unnoticed, Gray Donkey and Brown Cow were suddenly EVERYWHERE.
Apparently, we missed the memo that all the Spanish and Italian painters from the 14th to the 17th century received about the only animals that were allowed at the Birth of Baby Jesus, because these two found their way into probably no less than 200 paintings we saw.
They grazed on hay outside the stable. They lay in the mangers next to Baby Jesus. They stood affectionately behind Mary. And they, ummmmm, had relations.
Throughout the trip, we continued to see Brown Cow and Gray Donkey in works of art spanning hundreds of years and multiple countries. We Googled them several times, but came up empty. Brown Cow and Gray Donkey are apparently a mystery that has been lost to this time, and while we can guess as to their origins, we can't ever really know the truth.
Now, the inevitable morals of this short story:
First, no matter how much you think you know, don't ever assume you know the whole story. I personally have never read a Bible that specifically mentions the Brown Cow and Gray Donkey....yet for hundreds of years, painters from different countries speaking different languages painted them as a matter of fact into this very important Biblical scene. Coincidence?
Second, look beyond the obvious. Beyond Gray Donkey and Brown Cow, many pieces of art (and many things in life, for that matter) contain tiny little details that, when caught, can cause you to look at something in an entirely new way.
And, most importantly, third: When a 14th-century religious painting captures the attention of a 30-something American male tourist, it's probably something you're going to want to see.