Art history students offer a bite-sized introduction to the bestiary of the European Middle Ages.
By Annelisa Stephan
The medieval book of beasts, a kind of encyclopedia of animals known as the bestiary, was full of fascinating creatures both real and fantastic. While the bestiary often linked animals to Christian beliefs, teaching readers moral and religious lessons, it is also a window into the European Middle Ages. This fascinating type of book is the subject of the special exhibition at the Getty Center, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, from May 14 to August 18, 2019.
From the illuminations—small paintings in radiant colors—in the bestiary, we can uncover the ways people thought about animals in the Middle Ages and how they used them to tell stories. We can also find clues about medieval European ideas, social attitudes, and culture.
Manuscripts curators and digital media staff at the Getty Museum recently collaborated with art history students at UCLA in a bestiary-themed seminar. The students delved into the realm of medieval animals, uncovering many surprising facts. For even more beasts, see their series of spotlight posts that each key animals from the medieval bestiary. Here, the students spotlight some of the delightful, puzzling, and thought-provoking aspects of the bestiary they uncovered in their research.
1. Beasts Were the Memes of the Middle Ages
Stories in bestiaries endowed animals not only with Christian symbolism, but also with memorable personalities that endure to this day. Foxes, for example, were wily tricksters; lions were noble kings. The animal images and stories of the bestiary were memes of medieval culture, widely known and recognized. And beasts were found far beyond the pages of bestiaries: on church carvings, ivories and metalwork, paintings, and beyond.
One interesting example of the use of bestiary memes outside the bestiary itself is the thirteenth-century text Bestiaire d’amour (Bestiary of Love), an analysis of courtly love by Richard de Fournival. The author explains his romantic endeavors in terms of bestiary animals, comparing his lover to the siren whose saccharine song lures sailors to their death, to the virgin who captures the unwitting unicorn with her enticing innocence, the panther who attracts animals with its sweet-smelling breath, and the crocodile who ought to weep with regret after rejecting his advances—just as in the original bestiary, it weeps with regret after eating a man. Men other than the author are like the dragon, whose tongue is tainted with poison, the fox that feigns death to capture its prey, or the whale that deceives sailors into mistaking it for an island, only to drag them into the depths of ocean.
—Melissa Pammit, Sophie Taylor, and Hannah Thomson
2. Bestiary Stories Are Full of Drama and Violence
The bestiary used real and mythical animals to teach Christian morals, with stories that often involved blood, violence, and death. Fear of sin, death, and hell was used as an effective method of teaching.
Take the story of the pelican. Egged on by her children’s insolence, she strikes them dead in a bout of rage. Then, consumed with guilt, she rips herself open, and her gushing blood restores her chicks to life. Illuminators vividly depicted the violent result.
The bestiary book itself was made from the skin of animals. A calf or sheep was slaughtered and its hide removed, scraped of flesh and fur, then stretched over a frame to be turned into parchment. Material and content of the book worked together to perpetuate the violent themes within the covers.
3. Comically Wrong Illustrations of Animals Appear Generation after Generation
Until the twelfth century, the making of a medieval manuscript was a highly regulated and controlled process. Monks were often commissioned to create certain common types of books such as bibles, bestiaries, and books of hours. They often operated in a monastery scriptorium, a workshop in which books were copied diligently from earlier models. Strict rules prevented any deviation from the original texts, which meant that errors were faithfully copied down, and sometimes accidentally compounded, from generation to generation. The occasional illiteracy of the scribes, the cramped working conditions, and the long hours often contributed to the continuation of these mistakes.
Reusing standard images of humans, birds, and animals also allowed illuminators (artists who painted images for manuscripts) to maintain consistency from earlier versions of books. This meant that inaccuracies in depictions of animals—particularly Asian or African animals, such as the elephant—were passed down through the ages.
4. Man Is Depicted as Superior to Beast
Medieval bestiaries constructed a hierarchy in which God is the supreme ruler, followed by humans, and lastly animals.
By ascribing negative qualities to animals, bestiaries distance bad behaviors from humans and associate them with the animal world. When humans sin, the bestiary tells us that they are forfeiting their natural superiority and joining the inferior animal kingdom. In order to maintain our superiority as humans, we must avoid the actions that would make us like an animal.
The image above shows man in his rightful place: at the center of creation.
5. Animals Associated with Evil in the Bestiary Sometimes Experienced Cruel Treatment
Europeans of the Middle Ages relied heavily on signs and symbols to explain the world. Bestiary lore deeply embedded suspicion of certain animals into medieval culture, leading to unfortunate real-world consequences.
Cats, which were feared for their independent nature and supposed association with witchcraft, were associated with dark omens and the devil. Bestiaries reported that cats could “penetrate the darkness” with their keen eyesight, alluding to their mastery over night and evil. Cat burning was regularly conducted for entertainment and to cleanse the land of evil spirits. If cats were found near the scene of an accident or crime, they could even be put on trial and hanged for their apparent role in the misfortune.
The medieval writer Walter Map related in 1180 that during Satanic rituals, the devil visited his worshippers in the form of a black cat. This association of dark-colored cats (and other animals) with evil continues to this very day: a recent study found that people find light-colored dogs more friendly and adoptable than dark-colored ones.
—Sarah El Massry
6. Faraway Lands Are Full of Fantastic Creatures
Imaginary beasts such as the griffin, the sphinx, and the siren were important parts of the bestiary. In the image above, the artist depicts Adam in the process of naming the animals around him. Most beasts, like the horse, are fairly naturalistic and easily recognizable. But in the top left corner, nestled under the eagle, hides…a griffin.
In bestiary texts, medieval authors used pseudo-scientific details to bolster the credibility of such imaginary beasts. The author of one bestiary, for example, describes that the griffin is born in highly mountainous regions far north and includes a fun fact: they are hostile to horses.
Fantastical creatures such as the griffin were often said to live in faraway places—which explains why no European authors had ever seen them.
7. Bright Colors Are Clues to Exotic Beasts and Men
Bright colors were used to depict the foreign and exotic in medieval bestiaries. In a thirteenth-century English bestiary, for example, a medieval artist painted a crocodile being killed by a hydrus, a mythical creature said to have come from the Nile River in Africa; the hydrus is painted a vivid blue with red wings. In a slightly later English bestiary, the hybrid creature known as the manticore—which has the body of a lion and the head of a man—is painted blue.
The image above shows a unicorn being hunted by a group of three men. The figure in the middle of the composition wields a sharp axe, and his centrality in the painting is meant to highlight his importance. His blue skin indicates his foreign origins; medieval Europeans would have referred to him as a Saracen. The unicorn might seem like the most fantastic figure in this image, but the blue-skinned man is actually even more exotic.
8. Women Are Often Depicted as Victims of Misfortune
Women make brief appearances in medieval bestiaries, but without the agency, courage, or strength of their male counterparts. Instead, they are usually depicted as victims of misfortune and vessels for Christian moral lessons.
The hyena, for example, is often shown devouring a nude female corpse, its snout near her breasts or genitals. In the story of the unicorn, a virgin maiden is used to lure the unicorn—a symbol for Christ—into a hunters’ trap. She is commonly depicted as burdened with melancholy and shame, an accomplice to a grave theological crime.
9. The Most Expensive Bestiaries Are Hand-Painted with Gold
Illumination with gold was common in the Middle Ages, when gold was seen as a proper gift to honor God and reflect his presence. As with other types of manuscripts, gold leaf appears in many of the fanciest and costliest bestiaries.
There were two main methods to apply gold to parchment, one using powdered gold and the other using thin sheets of the metal:
- Powdered gold was mixed with gum Arabic (hardened sap from the acacia tree, which served as a binder) to form an ink that mimics liquid gold. This was the most expensive of the methods.
- Gold leaf is so thin that rubbing it between your fingers will cause it to disintegrate. Gold leaf was carefully applied to parchment over a layer of wet adhesive. Once dry, it was burnished to create a high shine, and the rest of the colors were filled in.
10. Bestiaries Tell of Magical Stones That Can Burn You Alive or Protect You from Evil
Bestiary stories frequently highlight the fantastical animals and “monstrous races” of faraway lands, showing both fascination with and fear of the unknown. They also highlight fearsome and magical stones, known as fire-stones and the adamas stone. Both were said to be found in the east (the Middle East and Asia).
Fire-stones are two stones, one male and one female, found on an unspecified distant mountain. When brought together, they consume everything around them by fire. The uncontrollable blaze represents the sinful joining of flesh between man and woman.
The adamas stone can only be found at night because it shines as bright as the sun—like true Christians, who shine with virtue in a dark world. Neither fire nor iron can destroy the adamas stone, much like Christ who can defeat death. Not only is the adamas stone virtually indestructible, but it has healing powers and protects from poison, demons, and evil spells rumored to be prevalent in “exotic” parts of the world.