Anyone who has enjoyed a few episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus is familiar with the giant foot. It appears in the middle and the end of the opening credits, stomping down on the title and all its surroundings — the little fart noise that comes with it is not to be ignored. It has become a symbol of sorts for the comedy troupe, and as Atlas Obscura points out, it's more than just some random foot.
If you've ever been to London's National Gallery, you came across the Mannerist masterpiece Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time (a.k.a. An Allegory of Venus and Cupid), the work of Florentine artist Agnolo Bronzino. Painted in the 1500s for King Francis, you can view the painting below.
If you look at the bottom lefthand corner, you will notice a familiar paw hovering above a bird.
When asked in a 1981 interview with People why he chose Bronzino's foot, Terry Gilliam, the sole mind behind the show's animation simply replied, "I guess it's because the big toe sticks up."
As simple a reason as Gilliam's might be, its impact has been a bit more complex. In a 1997 interview titled "On Being an Impish God," as part of the Terry Gilliams: Interviews collection, writer Paul Wells explains how the foot of Cupid is Gilliam's best example of his great ability to "decontextualize imagery and reinvest it with iconic status."
Not merely is the foot decontextualized from its original painting, but it becomes unrecognizable as part of a Mannerist masterpiece because it constitutes one of its most insignificant and unnoticed aspects. Gilliam simultaneously reduces the status of the original painting and heightens the functional nature of his one chosen aspect of it. The foot, ironically, becomes meaning full in its own right divorced from its source and invested with iconic largesse. Few would even know its proper context, and most importantly, nor would they be required to know, given the way the image has been deployed. Gilliam thus has it both ways. He creates a joke at the expense of high culture, mocking the supposed coherence and durability of classical art, while at the same time servicing the base comic appetites of popular culture in emphasizing the utilitarian aspect of an unappealing aspect of the body. The joke would not work so successfully if Gilliam had used a face or breast or a hand because these parts of the painting carry erotic and aesthetic weight in a way a foot does not. Gilliam essentially reanimates an image which is denied any pictorial dynamism both in the original painting and as a representational cultural form. Gillian’s “juxtapositions,” therefore, are not merely comparisons between forms, nor syntheses of the conflict between images in the spirit of Eisensteinian montage, but narrational continuities that are invested with fresh effects and alternative meanings.
Or maybe we just love it because it looks like God's foot randomly descending from the heavens to obliterate anything in its path and fart noises are hilarious.
[H/T Atlas Obscura]