“When the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, KMSKA) reopened on 24 September 2022, it had been closed for 11 years for a massive renovation that involved every part of the building and grounds. Two of three recent books cover the KMSKA as a museum, and highlights from the museum’s collections; the third covers Flemish and Walloon drawings from the Royal National Library of Belgium, in Brussels.
KMSKA: The Finest Museum is an overview of the renovation, including extensive photographs and plans relating the work done, including photographs of the renovated museum complete with art works. The museum was established in 1810; it expanded over the centuries and moved location from the academy to a purpose-built museum in 1890. It now houses 5,882 works, with prints by and after Rubens amounting to 714 prints…”
The Wyvern Collection of Medieval arts and crafts is one of the best-quality collections in the world. It is one of the largest in private hands. This book is the fourth volume in the catalogue raisonné of the collection. Including the 210 entries in this volume, the total number of entries in the series is 744 so far. Further volumes are under preparation.
Fittingly, the first item described is a chrismatory, a receptable for chrism (blessed oil used in liturgy). The small casket was made by Anglo-Saxon craftsmen around 800 and is extremely rare. It has been altered several times, mostly in ancient times. It probably came through the dissolution of the French ecclesiastical institutions during the French Revolution. Like all of the artefacts in the collection, they show signs of wear and repair. Gemstones have frequently been pried off.
The enamels – largely from Limoges, a centre of enamel production during the Medieval and Renaissance periods – present us with an in-depth selection of the high-end pieces produced for churches and private commissioners. The precious materials used demonstrate the importance of this type of work to the Limoges painters. The grisaille panels of the 1530-45 are striking. A Flagellation of Christ (c. 1550-60) is near grisaille, with only the flesh tones lightly tinted and the bloody wounds of Christ stark crimson. Small enamelled panels have come from objects that were broken up, with the silver or gold being melted down. The depth of the collection allows us to see how these parts would have been combined.
Reliquaries feature in this catalogue. Reliquaries are elaborate containers designed to hold small fragments associated with the lives of holy figures (Christ, the Holy Family, saints), including precious metals, gems and exotic materials – such as tropical shells, coral and other curiosities. Inset enamelled panels are common in the reliquaries in the Wyvern Collection. Plaques with religious scenes were made to adorn book covers. Another outstanding treasure is a plaque showing the incredulity of St. Thomas encountering the risen Christ, made in enamel and silver in Abruzzo, c. 1430-40. Flowers are in silver and vines are of twisted silver wire.
These paxes, pyxes, chrismatories, reliquaries, monstrances, chalices, censers, incense boats, crosses and other liturgical objects form a veritable survey of the most traditional of Christian spiritual metalwork. There are non-Christian artefacts, such as brooches, rings, cups, horns, tiles, dishes and plates. An oddity is a letter from Edward III granting fishing rights to the Earl of Cornwall, no doubt preserved because of the elaborate giant royal wax seal. There are some handsome helmets with gilding. The artisans who worked to decorate armour were those who would have worked on the type of liturgical objects in the Wyvern Collection.
Perhaps the most remarkable pieces are the stained glass from the South Netherlands, c. 1490-1530, painted contemporaneously with Bosch. These are small roundels are of religious scenes, painted with exquisite care and skill. Another fine piece is a salt well (c. 1560-70) from the workshop of Pierre Raymond is in grisaille enamel with gilding and is decorated with various animals on its sides; there is a pelican in the shallow rounded well. Most of the objects came from central and northern Europe.
The publication is thorough, with detailed descriptions, bibliographies and provenance for each artefact, with moderate or large colour illustration, some with multiple views. Scholars have been consulted to identify origins and materials and the commentaries describe the notable features and functions of artefacts. Bibliographies and auction backgrounds for each entry allow researchers to trace ownership and follow the scholarship. The book is sumptuously produced, with high-quality printing, generous size and a cloth hardcover binding. This volume will appeal to collectors, auction houses, historians and specialist libraries.
Paul Williamson, The Wyvern Collection: Medieval and Renaissance Enamels and Other Works of Art, Thames & Hudson, 2021, cloth hb, 480pp, 400 col. illus., £65, ISBN 978 0 500 02456 0
Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity studies narratives of the Nativity of Christ, following the development of the symbolism of pictorial art of (principally) the Renaissance. This is the follow-up book to the author Sarah Drummond’s previous book Divine Conception. A complex iconography accreted over centuries, differing between regions, that were essentially local oral traditions. The sculpture, paintings, mosaics, illuminated manuscripts and craft of the pre-16th century is evidence of these tales, often hard to untangle without specific accessible written records. The author has consulted widely to trace the iconography of the Nativity in art of Europe, principally northern Italy, Germany and the Low Countries. It starts in the Roman period and ends in 1566 with Bruegel.
The book is divided into chapters on Joseph, Mary, the Magi, ox and ass, cave, manger, midwives, shepherds, Birgitta’s vision and Joseph’s dream. While most of these are familiar, some are less so. (For example, who knows that in some traditions there were twelve Magi?) Birgitta’s vision was experienced by St Birgitta (Bridget) on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1373. She would go on to found an order and her description of the birth of Christ and his placement on the ground “presented a revolutionary way to reflect on the scene. With astonishing speed artists all over Christian Europe were soon depicting this new iconography.”
Drummond notes how descriptions of the Nativity in the Gospels is sparse, especially about the journey to Bethlehem, and how folklore filled in the gap with details that appeared in art work. The ox and ass are entirely apocryphal, not appearing in the Gospels at all, though they are first depicted in the Nativity in the Late Roman era. Perhaps the ox was a lingering reference to the Mithraic cult of bull sacrifice. When St Francis of Assisi celebrated Christmas in 1223 with an ass and ox in a church, it became a sensation, inspiring deeper devotion among the congregants. The fame was spread by St Bonaventure’s account and only underlined the centrality of these humble beasts of burden to the Nativity.
Likewise, the image of a shepherd goes back to kriophoros – the Greek figure of the shepherd carrying a ram on his shoulders. Drummond tells us that the cult of Mary began in 431, when the Council of Ephesus declared Mary theotokos, God-bearing. Joseph has always been a difficult figure for theologians, keen to portray him as incapable of fathering Christ, attentive yet unobtrusive. “In icons of the Orthodox tradition Joseph is always depicted apart, sitting in a pose that indicates thoughtfulness, mistrust, incertitude, doubt. His body is bent over as he muses on his sorrows and difficulties; he carries the weight of insecurity and anxiety.”
The cave is sometimes an alternative setting for the Nativity, in preference to the stable, often incorporating Roman ruins. This is something that is supported by the local topography, which has many caves, hollows and grottoes. These were used as stores and stables, so such an association is feasible. The cave was associated with thresholds to other realms and the abodes of prophets and sibyls. Drummond thinks that the later domination of the built stable in Nativities was the result of a drive to make the scene relatable for Northern Europeans. The forms of mangers vary greatly, generally related to familiar forms of the regions where the image makers lived.
The story of the midwives who came at Joseph’s behest to assist Mary came from the Apocrypha, namely the Protoevangelium Jacobi (c. 150). These women of Bethlehem witnessed miracles and were the first people to experience divine enlightenment. We can imagine that such an example offered an example of servitude of women that was uniquely feminine and allowed worshippers before these images to consider the birth of Christ in terms familiar from their daily life.
The author knows her topic well and gives us illuminating quotes from ancient sources. The footnotes and bibliography will assist some researchers, but this is not a scholarly book. The selection of art is satisfyingly broad and frequently unexpected. Some illustrations are complex whole compositions but reproduced too small. In these cases, details would have been more suitable.
This would make a good Christmas gift for those engaged by the iconography of art. This review will be reposted before Christmas 2022 to remind people of the book.
Sarah Drummond, Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity, Unicorn Press, London, November 2021, hardback cloth spine, 132pp, fully col. Illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 913 491 86 4
By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800 is a current touring exhibition (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 30 September 2021-9 January 2022; Detroit Institute of Arts, 6 February-29 May 2022). The exhibition brings together some of the biggest names in art by Italian women. Gentileschi, Anguissola, Carriera are well known to students of art history and Fontana is familiar to anyone who has read a feminist art history; lesser-known figures give a wider view of the field. This review is from the catalogue.
Interest in women artists has grown apace in recent years. Of particular focus has been Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later), a Baroque Caravaggisti from Rome. The high standard of her best paintings and her life story have been taken up as proof of twin claims made broadly by feminists – that women are as equally talented as men, therefore their general absence from art history (until recently) is a deliberate act of erasure by men, and that women have suffered shaming and abuse at the hands of men which has made pursuit of profession and private fulfilment difficult unique to women. Despite the fact that women’s routes to the position of accredited artist were often less straightforward than those of male counterparts, historical research supports the fact that women did work in the art field in greater numbers than initially thought. The narrative of systemic oppression seems less tenable. Talent and determination has a way of finding an outlet and recognition, if only posthumously. All of the artists in this exhibition achieved some degree of professional success in their lifetimes.
Artemisia Gentileschi was daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), who acted as her master during her apprenticeship as a painter. Her style follows his, which was patterned on Caravaggio’s. In 1611 she was raped by the Agostino Tassi (1578-1644). After the rape, Tassi offered to marry Artemisia, which was a promise he subsequently broke. It was the breaking of this marriage contract that was brought to trial by Orazio, as well as a plan by Tassi to steal a painting by Orazio. Although Tassi was found guilty of breaking the contract and having committed other crimes (and of having planned to commit others), he was not punished. Artemisia’s subsequent paintings of women martyrs, and of Judith murdering Holofernes, are interpreted as a pointed response to the attack and failure of the court to implement just punishment. Almost all of her paintings feature women protagonists. This may be a personal fixation of hers or (as some historians have suggested) the artist trading on her notability as a high-profile woman artist by painting women. Gentileschi subsequently married and moved to Florence, where she achieved success as a court painter. Later periods in Venice, Rome, Naples and London led to steady commissions and respectful receptions by local academies and courts.
The catalogue reproduces three Gentileschi self-portraits of 1615-7 and a prototype of c. 1613-4. The exhibition includes perhaps her great painting, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5). In it, the standing Judith holds a blooded cutlass. She holds out a hand to shade her left eye; that presents us with the audacious crescent of her profile shining in the darkness. The composition is a series of arcs tumbling down the composition. It is a fine picture, perhaps the best of her oeuvre. It has the usual weaknesses of Caravaggisti painting – poor articulation of space, breaks in logic (the shadow of Judith’s raised arm should throw her sleeve and shoulder into darkness, etc.), selective use of optical accuracy (gestures towards realistic shadows, no understanding of reflected light and colour) and the problems of proportion that stem from composite designs that combine discrete parts, which derives from (though is not in all instances caused by) use of the camera obscura. Historians tend to be overimpressed by the appearance of naturalism in Caravaggisti paintings, not crediting the degree to which artists deliberately fudge issues when they need to achieve a certain effect. Caravaggisti were primarily concerned to create an impression of truthfulness rather than record truth. It is a form of dishonesty and is their greatest fault.
Gentileschi’s non-Judith Biblical paintings and self-portraits are distinctly less persuasive, degrees weaker than the paintings of Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663). Cagnacci (despite his flaws) is a better, more exciting painter than Gentileschi. Lot and His Daughters (1636-8) has the three figures like cut-outs adjoining one another, figures casting no shadows on others; this undermines the artist’s intention to bond the three in an interlocked group. David and Bathsheba (c. 1636-7)is much poorer, with the architectural background (perhaps by an assistant) being both insistent and unpersuasive. The rearmost attendant is awkward; the others are little better. The placement of figures and spatial arrangement is risible, making a mockery of the attempted eye contact between Bathsheba and the rightmost attendant. Such paintings – the pedestrian and the poor – show Gentileschi to be a second-rate painter capable of a few flashes of brilliance.
So, what of the quality of the rest of the art? Does it stand up to scrutiny?
Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535-1625) is a very inconsistent artist, as this selection proves. She is best known for self-portraits, which vary in treatment from the sensitive to the cursory. The lowest in quality seem to be casual efforts, trading on the novelty of being self-portraits of a woman artist. (A painfully malproportioned self-portrait (now in Vienna) is illustrated.) The miniature self-portrait with giant medallion (oil on parchment, 3¼” x 2½”) is a handsome piece of work, well modelled, contemplative, technically well thought through. Self-Portrait at the Easel (1554-5) is one of the number of variants, showing the artist depicting a Virgin and Child. The portraits of children are good, one deriving from Giovanni Battista Moroni’s style. The Holy Family (1592) is rather unpleasant, with its pneumatic anatomies and slick handling. For more on this artist, read another review by me here.
Diana Scultori (c. 1547-1612) was a Mantuan engraver working in the Roman style established by Marcantonio Raimondi. The composition after Giulio Romano is very effective; the translation of a Cornelius Cort drawing of The Spinario is somewhat less so. It is difficult to separate the weaknesses of this second engraving into errors of the original drawing and those of transcription.
Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) is one of the female painters of the Bolognese School. She is represented by religious paintings, portraits and portrait drawings executed in black and red chalks. A small tondo portrait of a prelate (c. 1580) is arresting – sympathetic, engaged, carefully executed – but the other pictures are unremarkable. Fede Galizia (c. 1574-c. 1630) seems (on the evidence of her Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1596) and an attractive still-life of fruit (c. 1607)) to be of high calibre, but it is impossible to judge on the strength of only two paintings. It is hard to assess printmakers Isabella Catanea Parasole (active 1585-1625) and Anna Maria Vaiani (1604-c. 1655), painter Anna Bacherini Piattoli (1720-1788) and miniaturist Veronica Stern Telli (1717-1801) on these meagre showings. Painters Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596-1676) and Ginevre Cantofoli (1618-1672) and pastellist Marianna Carlevarijs (1703-after 1750) seem to be very slight talents.
Through illustration, it is hard to appreciate the religious dioramas of Caterina de Julianis (c. 1670-c. 1742). Dioramas (framed constructions of painted wax figures of saints in setting deep-relief settings are pieces) often get overlooked in art histories. Somewhere between fine art, devotional handicraft, ex voto and sculptural curiosity, such dioramas are hard to categorise. The common temperamental aversion of polychromy in sculpture, prejudice against the use of wax (redolent of anatomical teaching aides) and the fact that these diorama were often produced by nuns (often anonymously) rather than professionally accredited artists, all mean that dioramas of devotional character fall between academic disciplines and do not receive their due attention. The extreme delicacy of such pieces has caused a high attrition rate, leading to gaps in the historical records which has obscured the extent of the production. de Julianis’s piece in the catalogue has a coloured wax figurine of Penitent Magdalene, in woodland grotto with a deer drinking at a stream, with a painted landscape behind. The materials are listed as “beeswax, pigments, paper, glass, vellum, silk, feathers, wire, burlap, and varnish”. Such dioramas inspired recent art by contemporary sculptor Berlinde de Bruyckere.
The attractive and scrupulous tempera paintings on parchment of flora and fauna by Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) are a delight. She trained as a miniaturist and made portraits and religious paintings. They are sharp, accurate and display great versatility – they hark back to Dürer and anticipate the field of naturalist illustration. Despite the wealth of detail, they never become either fussy or stiff, enlivened by the use of hatched shading and blending of colours and line with stippling. The subjects have sculptural presence. They are the outstanding find of this exhibition.
Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was another Bolognese artist, adulated in her lifetime. She was a prolific painter, producing portraits, mythological paintings, Biblical scenes and etchings. We know of her production and development because she signed and dated many paintings. Aside from the original and intense Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664), there is nothing here that seems to separate Sirani from contemporaries. To prove her fortitude to her husband Brutus, Portia stabbed herself in the thigh. It is a rare subject in art. Portia’s expression is reserved and a touch dreamy. In a way, it anticipates the modern-day self-cutting craze, where bloodletting is a test of strength and self-control. Responses to Sirani and Fontana will likely depend on whether the viewer finds the art of the Bolognese School of this period agreeable
Venetian pastellist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) is well known enough. As a portraitist in pastels, she was famed during her lifetime and (for afficionados of the period) she is still a star. Her miniature portraits in watercolour on ivory show the delicacy of her touch and flair for Rococo airiness and sensuality. Her technical grounding and brio in execution make her pastels and paintings attractive and stylistically consistent – internally and as a group. As with much Rococo art, there is the ever-present temptation for the artist to flatter both subject and viewer. A late invented head in pastel is looser and more expressive than her commissioned portraits.
The exhibition also includes portraits of women artists by men. The best is a dramatic, sculptural and handsome 1627 painting by Simon Vouet (1590-1649), of his wife Virginia de Vezzo (1600-1638). This is a thoughtful addition but perhaps a counter-productive one. With the possible exception of Gentileschi’s Judith, Vouet’s portrait is the best painting in an exhibition dedicated to presenting the abilities of women artists.
Catalogue essays explore women artists as miniaturists and the professional standing of women artists in this period in Italy. Catalogue entries devote space to discussing issues related to exhibited items. The essays and catalogue entries are written by specialists Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, Sheila Barker, Babette Bohn, Claude-Douglas Dickerson III, Jamie Gabbarelli, Hilliard Goldfarb, Lara Lea Roney and Joaneath Spicer. The entries are sympathetic towards the situation of women artists but lack the stridency or partisan quality found in other books. This makes the catalogue a pleasure to read and endows the statements with greater credibility. The evidence of new scholarship is woven into informative entries on exhibits.
The more sweeping claims of first-generation feminist art historians are being picked apart by close study of records. “Beginning in the fourteenth century, women’s rate of matriculation in the artisanal guilds across Europe began to drop, yet women continues to work in similar numbers. Whereas this decline was formerly attributed to efforts to cast women out of guilds through exclusionary tactics, historians now widely agree that late medieval and early modern women may have deliberately avoided joining guilds, probably to save money and time, and to skirt requirements that could cut into their profit margins, productivity, employment opportunities, and market shares.”
The extensive exhibition list and bibliography will be a useful reference for students and academics seeking sources. The illustrations are generally very good. Overall, the catalogue and exhibition is a balanced overview of women artists in Italy in the pre-modern era. Some of the art is wonderful and the texts provide a survey of the achievements of Italian women artists.
Edit: To read my perspective on the interaction between female artists, feminism, the art market and art criticism/history, read my book “Women and Art: A Post-Feminist View”. Details given here.
Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, et al, By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Detroit Institute of Arts (distr. Yale), 2021, cloth hb, 208pp, 141 col. illus., $40/£30, ISBN 978 0 300 25636 9
Ana Debenedetti, formerly Curator of Paintings at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has written a book on Botticelli, paying particular attention to him as head of a workshop and producer of designs for embroideries, tapestries, wood inlays and other non-painted art. It is the latest in the attractive series of artist monographs from Reaktion.
Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (1445-1510), called Botticelli, was born in Florence into what we would describe today as a middle-class family. One brother (Antonio) was a goldsmith, another was a marriage broker. Botticelli was possibly apprenticed to Maso Finiguerra (1426-1464) as a teenager. Finiguerra was a goldsmith but part of a goldsmith’s activities included designing in stucco before gilding. It was a task that straddled metalwork, bas relief and painting and was one of multiple of decorative disciplines that could be employed on production of furniture, frames, altarpieces and liturgical objects. Botticelli painted a portrait of man (Antonio?) holding an actual gilded medallion attesting to his trade. Either of the brothers would have been capable of producing that element.
Botticelli seems to have received instruction on goldsmithing, stucco-work and drawing from Finiguerra. In 1459 or 1460 Botticelli became assistant to Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), already an established master of a higher calibre and status to Finiguerra. Debenedetti suggests that this may be because of the Botticelli family’s social or business connections with Fra Filippo. His reputation was high and his studio was busy, so it may not have taken much persuasion for the master to take on the talented young Botticelli. (Filippino Lippi (son of Filippo), upon the death of his father completed his apprenticeship under Botticelli.)
Under Fra Filippo, Botticelli learned panel and fresco painting in tempera. He was one of the last painters to be trained in tempera on panel and not to adapt to the incoming medium of oil painting on panel and canvas. By the time of his death, Botticelli’s style had fallen from fashion and his materials seemed hopelessly archaic. Botticelli used lighting to make his figures clear rather than to imitate light and shade in naturalistic fashion. In his early paintings some of his figures cast no shadows. There is no hint of reflected colour in Botticelli’s art. Note how the figures of Leonardo and Raphael are integrated into their surroundings, quite unlike Botticelli’s paintings. In other respects, Botticelli was advanced painter, observing nature and including details to heighten the richness of his scenes. “This wealth of detail echoes the rich apparatus of Fortitude [(1470)], and reveals Botticelli’s obsession with naturalistic features that would soon become a distinctive trait of his art. it is his capacity to depict the natural world as a veritable spectacle of marvels that made Botticelli one of the most successful translators of the Florentine devotional and mythological scenes alike.”
Botticelli’s painting bottega (shop, workshop) was one of the largest in Florence in the 1470s and 1480s. Apparently, his prices were not notably higher than those of other masters. It was in the family home. He lived in his brother’s family over the period 1482-94; after his brother’s death he lived there alone. Filippino Lippi, now fully trained, acted as Botticelli’s junior collaborator. Filippino may have inherited his father’s model books (or pattern books), which contained exemplary drawings used as designs for compositions, figures and details in paintings. There is a lot of crossover in terms of treatment and imagery in the many paintings of Virgin and Child made by Fra Filippo, Filippino and Botticelli. The facial type of the Virgin (the sweet countenance, pale skin and rounded forehead) rarely changes, though we see development of treatment of space and iconography. Likewise, in the portraits we see versatility and a degree of innovation. There is not space enough for the author to do more than discuss The Divine Comedy illustrations in brief.
Debenedetti assesses the reception and commissioning of art by the Botticelli’s workshop, doing some close reading of particularly notable works. Attention is paid to Botticelli’s contribution to a commission for symbolic paintings for the Merchants’ Guild court, executed in 1470. The original commission had gone to Piero del Pollaiolo for seven paintings, perhaps as the painted backs of chairs for the judges. For some reason, a senior politician intervened and had one of the paintings was made by Botticelli. It was the artist’s first public commission. It may be that the guild was irritated by Piero’s slow work. He was also young and inexperienced. Debenedetti says that technical analysis shows that Piero’s older brother Antonio may have stepped in to complete at least one painting to save the remainder of the commission.
The author disagrees with the truth – or at least the totalising explanation – of a move to archaising influence of Girolamo Savonarola (during his influence on Florence, 1489-1498) upon Botticelli’s style. “Although this observation is undeniable, it cannot go unnoticed that Botticelli changed his style several times before this dark period.” It was Savonarola’s messianic preaching and message of devotion through civic renewal that made him popular and feared. The destruction of worldly luxuries that Savonarola called for resulted in the Bonfire of the Vanities. Botticelli and Lorenzo di Credi both allegedly gave paintings to be burned.
The author analyses Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. She considers that the revival of theatre by the court of Lorenzo Medici may have influenced Primavera (c. 1480) and The Birth of Venus (1478-82). His last recorded commission was made in 1505. By the time of his death, five years later, he was neglected and his possessions and copy books were considered of little monetary value. Debenedetti believes that his copy books did posthumously reach other artists before being broken up and the sheets almost all lost.
Illustrations of the relevant pictures are handy. The images of contemporaneous applied art using the painter’s designs are not often found and they prompt us to reconsider the master as collaborator and designer. The full endnotes, chronology, bibliography and index are a welcome addition for a relatively short book. Debenedetti’s Botticelli: Artist and Designer is a well-researched book that takes advantage of new scholarship.
Ana Debenedetti, Botticelli: Artist and Designer, 2021, Reaktion, hardback, 232pp, 73 col./1 mono illus., £15.95, ISBN 978 1 78914 438 3
[Image: Unknown English artist, Lions (c. 1250), from Bestiary, parchment, leaf: 29.6 × 19 cm (11 5/8 × 7 1/2 in.), The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Bodl. 764, fols. 2v
During the Middle Ages in Northern Europe, books of real and imaginary creatures and animal lore were made. These bestiaries were frequently variations on established texts, the main ones being the Bestiary of Philippe de Thaon and Physiologus by Theobaldus. Others were looser collections of animal images and knowledge. Some were illustrated and these are at the centre of a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (14 May-19 August 2019). Although many were unillustrated and were essentially copies of earlier texts, the illuminations in some of the late 12th Century to mid-15th Century (but most in the earlier part of this period) are large, detailed and beautiful. This review is from the catalogue.
The standard list of animals contained in bestiaries was lion, tiger, panther, antelope, lynx, eagle, fishes, weasel, fox, monkey, camel, snake, walrus and whales, as well as more amazing creatures, such as the griffin, dragon, hydrus and phoenix. Some of the illustrations of real animals are so attenuated that they become incredible in our eyes – the crocodile is shown with long legs, bird feet and ears. There are half-human animals such as centaurs and sirens and more peculiar deviants, like relations of Boschian hybrids. The images of animals are accompanied by short texts describing the animals’ physiognomies, characters, behaviour and habitats. Early bestiaries included a few entries on exceptional trees and gemstones, however these were later dropped. The information is a mixture of the observed and invented. (For example, elephants only eat human children “if they are exceptionally hungry”.) Some of the animals are part of symbolic tales, such The Romance of Alexander, a diverse set of impossible tales about the doings of Alexander the Great. There is one in which Alexander descends to the bottom of the sea in a glass ship and encounters a whale.
The life of animals were often invented and presented as moral lessons from God. The unicorn the symbol of fidelity, purity and virginity and was associated with the Virgin Mary. Pelicans were often depicted as piercing their own hearts to feed its young, making its self-sacrifice as an analogue to the suffering of Christ. There is a damaged wooden sculpture of a pelican sacrificing itself for its brood, with the blood painted on. Polychromy was common in sculpture of the time.
These bestiaries were sometimes part of longer theological texts. The texts are mainly in Latin or French, written by monks and nuns for the large part. This catalogue is very thorough and includes essays by specialists and detailed discussion of individual items, explaining background, symbolism and peculiarities of the exhibits. Analysis shows that the texts are copies but frequently incorporating variations (additions and subtractions, as well as reordering), with attempts to make the texts more comprehensive or artistic by conforming meter and line length. The artistry of the illustrators is sometimes fantastic and individualistic, all working in what we would class the international Gothic style. Some of the volumes were broken up or had choice pages cut out. A handful has been defaced; many have been annotated.
[Image: Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Grid with Nine Animals, France, about 1400–1415, from On the Properties of Things, parchment, leaf: 29 × 38 cm (11 7/16 × 14 15/16 in.). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA, HM 27523
The books are of a theological character. Whilst incorporating some older learning from Greek times, the books focus on the moral aspect, showing how God’s order is present in the animal kingdom as it is among people. There are aspects of what we would call science and history. They show the typical blend of the Medieval worldview – observation and book learning filtered through a Christian lens, with some knowledge classical mythology. The vast majority of material on display originated from the regions of modern-day France, England, Germany, northern Italy and the Low Countries. The loans come from museums and private collections in Europe and America.
The medieval world was rich with symbols. There were draughts of ivory cut with animal designs. Noble escutcheons used animals to symbolise attributes, which were codified and recorded in books. The exhibition includes metal aquamanilia, water containers for the washing of the hands of nobility. These were hollow vessels shaped as animals, often lions (the king of the beasts), and included handles and spigots. The horns of ibexes were presented as griffin claws; narwhal tusks were carved and mounted on silver, described as unicorn horns. Other items include combs and embossed metalwork.
Animals feature as part of church architectural decoration. These are illustrated in the catalogue and a handful of stone capitals and other ecclesiastical relief carvings are displayed in the exhibition. The best of the non-painted animals must be the embroideries and tapestries, some diminished by age but still vigorous in design, coloration and execution. The later encyclopaedia of animals featured comments on the ethics of animals – if they were brave or cowardly, if they stood and fought, if they were prepared to die to defend their territory and offspring. This strays into the area of comparative ethics, contrasting the behaviour of animals with that of people. The mixture of diligence, scholarship, assumption and falsehoods persists in these books as it did in the earlier bestiaries, often providing no more accurate picture of reality. However, we should not assume that scientific knowledge was the aspiration of writers and patrons of these books. They were often as much in search of spiritual sustenance as accurate information.
[Image: Unknown English artist, Bee; Peridexion Tree; Serpent; Dragon (c. 1240–50) from Bestiary, parchment, leaf: 28 × 16.5 cm (11 × 6 1/2 in.). The British Library. Image: GRANGER EX.2019.2.58]
The later section of the exhibition includes a few examples of natural history, herbal miscellanies, maps and paintings of animals from the Renaissance and later. The exhibition here loses its way, with the strands becoming too numerous, diverse and separated to cohere – especially in small selections. Study of geography and natural history can be found in the bestiaries but that transition – and the contradictions and contrasts between the areas – requires a dedicated monograph (with or without monographic exhibition). To have maximum impact and coherence, this exhibition should have terminated in the Renaissance and been limited to fewer areas. Nevertheless, the catalogue and exhibition Book of Beasts shed light on the Medieval mindset and allow us to see the complicated overlaps and schisms between theology, natural science, mythology and speculative art that later gave birth to the modern world. The catalogue is a grand affair, with large pin-sharp illustrations, thorough data, bibliography and index. Care has been taken to balance scholarship with approachable text for the engaged non-specialist reader.
Elizabeth Morrison (ed.), Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, J. Paul Getty Museum, June 2019, half-cloth hardback, 354pp, 281 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 1 60606 590 7