Book of Beasts
The Bestiary in the Medieval World
A kind of encyclopedia of animals, the bestiary was among the most popular illuminated texts in northern Europe during the Middle Ages (about 500–1500). Because medieval Christians understood every element of the world as a manifestation of God, the book largely focused on each animal’s religious meaning. The bestiary brought creatures both real and fantastic to life before the reader’s eyes, offering devotional inspiration as well as entertainment.
The beasts and their tales became so familiar that they often escaped from the pages to inhabit an array of works of art, ranging from ivories and metalwork to stained glass and tapestries. The bestiary also provided the basis for the emerging field of natural history in the late Middle Ages and established a far-reaching legacy that still impacts the visual arts today.
This exhibition, the first ever dedicated to the bestiary, gathers together more than a hundred works from institutions across the United States and Europe, including one-third of the world’s surviving illuminated bestiaries. These works of art are a vibrant testimony to the power of the medieval imagination.
Animals as Symbols: The Case of the Unicorn
The bestiary was one of the most popular sources of information on animals in the Middle Ages. It presented real and legendary creatures as living allegories, with their physical and behavioral characteristics symbolizing central aspects of the Christian faith. A prime example is the unicorn, a pure creature whose tale of capture and killing was associated with the biblical narrative of Christ’s death for the salvation of humanity. The unicorn became one of the most beloved animals in art of the period, largely due to its connection to Christ. This quintessentially medieval beast serves as an introduction to the exhibition by underscoring how the bestiary played a vital role in establishing animal stories and their Christian connotations in the minds of audiences.
The Bestiary: Text and Image
Medieval bestiaries contained anywhere from a few dozen to more than a hundred descriptions of animals, each accompanied by an iconic image. Although the essential elements of the text and imagery associated with each creature remained largely consistent across manuscripts, the bestiary was not a standardized book. The selection and order of the beasts varied, though many bestiaries divided them into a hierarchy of land animals, birds, serpents, and sea creatures. Some descriptions explained an animal’s Christian significance, such as the unicorn as a symbol for Christ, while others focused on physical characteristics.
The aim of the stories and illuminations was not to impart factual information or visual accuracy but rather to convey the wonder, variety, or hidden meaning found in the natural world. Originally, the bestiary was intended for religious education within the church, but it was eventually sought after by wealthy member of society for devotional reading as well as entertainment. The bestiary was also translated from Latin in other languages, notably French, further extending its popular reach.
Beyond the Bestiary
The bestiary’s stories and images were so popular that medieval artists readily adapted them for other kinds of manuscripts as well as various works of art ranging from diminutive ivory carvings to enormous tapestries. Because many bestiary animals communicated complex religious messages, they often appeared in liturgical and devotional contexts where worshippers could easily link them to Christian ideology.
In addition, the well-known characteristics associated with numerous beasts—the unicorn, the elephant, and the fox, among others—were effortlessly appropriated for secular works made for the elite realm of the court. Over time, the memorable creatures that were central to the bestiary tradition pervaded the visual vocabulary of the medieval world, becoming some of the most common symbols in art of the period.
Even beyond the European Christian tradition, the use of animals as allegories for human virtues and vices was a widespread phenomenon that underscores the capacity of beasts to serve as moral exemplars.
Manuscript Illumination: Creation and Copying
Medieval manuscript illumination was all done by hand. First the artist, or illuminator, created a line drawing with lead point or ink. Next, areas to receive gold or silver were covered with a sticky material such as refined red clay or tree sap, over which the metal leaf was laid. Then tempera colors were applied, working from paler to darker hues. These paints were made from various colorants—ground minerals and metals, plant-based dyes, and chemically produced pigments—mixed with water and a binding medium, usually egg white or gum. Lastly, details such as black outlines and white highlights were added. Illumination was integral to the bestiary genre. The majority of surviving copies are illuminated, with images on almost every page. In fact, bestiaries have a higher ratio of image to text than most other types of medieval manuscripts. Moreover, there are groups of bestiaries with remarkably similar illuminations, suggesting that they were copied from one book to the next. This fidelity to a particular set of images is relatively rare, setting the illuminating practice in the bestiary tradition apart from other manuscript genres in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The Bestiary and Natural History
The medieval bestiary was never intended as a scientific work, but much of its lore was eventually incorporated in to nascent field of natural history. The period of the bestiary’s greatest popularity (1100–1300) corresponded with a movement toward the creation of encyclopedias intended to gather together all knowledge. Many of these included a section devoted to animals, which relied heavily on the bestiary but often stripped away the Christian symbolism.
At the same time, the European conception of the world was being broadened by a growth in trade and travel that increasingly linked the West with other parts of the globe. In the developing field of cartography, maps and navigational charts represented the world’s creatures in their respective regions. Mapped species included legendary people believed to live beyond the bound of Europe, which fascinated medieval audiences. The stories popularized through the bestiary continued to influence natural history texts and images well into the sixteenth century.
Legacy of the Bestiary
In the visual arts, the rich legacy of the bestiary lasted far beyond the Middle Ages. Twentieth-century artists revived the pairing of animal imagery and text, calling their creations “bestiaries” after the medieval example. Today the term often refers to any collection of descriptions of animals, whether in words or images, but not necessarily with associated allegories or Christian connotations. Modern bestiaries, as well as contemporary works of art made in an array of media, draw on the medieval tradition while also introducing elements from the artists’ own time and place.