The Bestiary in the Medieval World

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[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
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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.

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[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
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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.

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[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

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

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