NARRATOR: Imagine a ceiling covered with animals. These are just two of the many ceiling panels you would have once seen above you in a cathedral chapter house, a meeting place for religious officials. This ceiling was a rare find, and it illustrates the power of the bestiary’s imagery to move from manuscript pages to more monumental contexts. Curator Elizabeth Morrison:
BETH MORRISON: Medieval painted ceilings are almost nonexistent. It’s the kind of object that just would have been destroyed over the years because they’re wood. [about 52:00] I can only imagine how amazed the workmen were when they took off this lower ceiling, and behind it was an almost totally complete medieval ceiling that would have occupied almost 1,000 square feet.
NARRATOR: Originally there would have been over 90 individual animals on the ceiling, and medieval audiences would know their stories. At the center of one of the panels is a charging unicorn, considered one of the most noble of all God’s creatures.
BETH MORRISON: To the right of the unicorn is a wolf. In fact, it looks like it’s biting its leg. … According to the text of the bestiary, a wolf was trying to approach a herd of sheep in the middle of the night of course to steal one. It steps on a stick and makes a noise. It wakes up the sheep herder and the sheep herder is able to save the sheep. The point of the story was, the wolf gets so mad at itself for making the noise that it bites the leg that stepped on the stick.
NARRATOR: The other panel features two lions—considered as noble as the unicorn. On this same panel, notice a bird to the right with cloven hooves…
BETH MORRISON: The bird represents an ostrich. You can see that it has got a silver horseshoe in its mouth. According to the medieval bestiary, the ostrich was known for the characteristic of being able to eat iron, so it’s often shown with a horseshoe in its mouth in many images through the Middle Ages.