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 tumble, soar, and race through the pages of the bestiary, a popular type of medieval book describing the beasts of the world. Abounding with vibrant and fascinating images, the bestiary brought real and fantastical creatures to life for readers. So cherished were these vividly imagined beasts, they often “escaped” from manuscripts to inhabit other art works made during the medieval period, and even up to the present day.
Adam Naming the Animals from Northumberland Bestiary (text in Latin), English, about 1250–1260, artist unknown. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 100 (2007.16), fol. 5v
Sit, Stand, Kneel, 2019, Janet Macpherson, slip-cast porcelain, paper clay, gold lustre, and plaster. Collection of the artist, created with support from the Canadian Council for the Arts. © Janet Macpherson
Animals as Symbols: The Case of the Unicorn
The Bestiary: Text and Image
Manuscript Illumination: Creation and Copying