Bestiary

I first learned of medieval bestiaries in my first year of high school. The nun who ran the school library offered me a couple of journals that she didn’t need, and having already developed a mania for any kind of printed material, I snatched them up without even looking them over. Later, as I rode the subway home, I pulled them from my knapsack and saw that they were recent publications from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of which was a bulletin titled A Medieval Bestiary.

Medieval bestiaries were manuscripts devoted to animal lore. They included real and fantastic animals alike, and they were sometimes illustrated. The information provided on each animal was usually based on classical or earlier medieval sources, like Pliny the Elder’s Natural History or Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. In the Middle Ages, the world was considered a book of signs; each thing within it had a meaning to be discerned. Bestiaries, therefore, weren’t merely descriptive, they were also allegorical and moralizing. Many animals became religious symbols because certain of their characteristics were reminiscent of Christian figures or stories. The pelican, for example, was a symbol of Christ because it was believed that a mother pelican would pierce her breast to feed her chicks if she were unable to find food for them. This self-sacrifice was seen as analogous to Christ’s sacrifice at the Crucifixion.

The cathedral of Sessa Aurunca is particularly rich in images of animals, most of them sculpted, and a few in mosaic. On one of my first visits there, I thought of photographing them all and posting the images here. Then, as my idea developed, I thought it might be interesting to present them in the form of entries in a bestiary, with a short description of the animal based on medieval sources, and adding a brief discussion of the work in question.

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6 responses to “Bestiary

  1. I hope you enjoy the bestiary posts…I sometimes wonder if I should continue writing them because they get very little response, but honestly I find them fun to do. There are still quite a few more animals in the cathedral to write about. I think next up will be either cat or peacock.

  2. KC: please don't give up – some of us love them (possibly even as much as you do)! Greetings from fellow-fan (& mediaevalist manquee) in France. Pelicans are a favourite of mine – despite the rather grisly, sacrificial take on their behaviour!

  3. Minnie, I'm so glad to hear someone else enjoys them. I have plans for several more but Sessa's cathedral, which is the source for all the animal imagery I use, is under restoration and I can't get in to photograph them! I think there is even a pelican. (I'm not entirely sure and I need to get a better look at it. It's a fairly small mosaic, thus the confusion.) I already have a couple of photos of animals for whom the medieval bestiary entries are very short, and I find it hard to elaborate on them. I'll give them a try, though, knowing there's another bestiary fan reading!

  4. Thanks, Karen. My favourite book on the subject – sadly, out of print – is entitled 'God's Beasts'; concentrates on UK examples (misericords, hunky punks, corbels, bench ends & capitols etc.), and is fascinating – but changes hands via Amazon et al for astronomical sums! Wish I'd bought a copy when I could have afforded one. So look forward to seeing more of your own examples – cheers!

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