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.