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The Beasts of Medieval Art

The Beasts of Medieval Art

Art from the Medieval period seems to move.

A slither here, a crawl there. A dragon mingling precariously close to praying men and women. A fantastic unicorn rearing gallantly in the center of a cobblestone street.

The imagination of medieval artists regarding animals, both real and fantastic, appears to be limitless. There is no doubt that animals played a heavy role in the day-to-day lives of the people of Medieval Europe (roughly 500-1500 AD) as the farming culture during the time made up the backbone of families and the local economies. But is their presence so ingrained in Medieval art simply due to familiarity and fondness? Or is there a deeper, more symbolic side to the painted lives of these creatures? And what can be said about the overwhelming amount of mythical beasts at play among the “everyday” fauna?

Wild Woman with Unicorn, c. 1500 - 1510, Basel Historical Museum

Wild Woman with Unicorn, c. 1500 – 1510, Basel Historical Museum

Animals in Everyday Life

Domesticated cattle, goats, sheep, and especially horses were household necessities during the Medieval period, giving one explanation as to why they were so prevalent in the artwork and illuminated manuscripts of the period. Livestock provided food, clothing, material with which to create books, and also facilitated trade between locals. Horses were prized not only for transportation, but also by Medieval knights for their use in war. In fact, war horses were even more revered than plow horses and were worth nearly 800 times the amount.

Ordinary animals were also used symbolically in art – especially in religious texts and Christian manuscripts. They often represented a reflection of God’s divine plan and were associated with cultural values such as courage and virtue. Much of this stemmed from the many references to animals in the Bible, such as in the Book of Job:

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” (Job 12:7-10)

In this way, all of the creatures of Earth reflected Creation and how humanity should carry out day-to-day activities. In an introduction to “The Medieval Bestiary,” David Badke illustrates this concept, writing, “God created them [animals] with those characteristics to serve as examples for proper conduct and to reinforce the teachings of the Bible. As the pelican revives her dead young after three days with her own blood, so Christ ‘revived’ humanity with his blood after three days in the grave. The way the young of the hoopoe care for their elderly parents shows how human children should care for theirs.”

Bestiaries and Symbolic Creatures

Bestiaries or “Books of Beasts” were among the most popular texts in the Medieval world. Alongside fantastic written tales and descriptions of mythical beasts, whom many believed lurked deep in the unknown wilderness, stood vivid and imaginative illustrations of such creatures. These Bestiaries functioned as guidebooks – giving readers visual glimpses of what they had only heard through oral tales.

Unclean Spirits Issuing from the Mouths of the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet, c. 1255 - 1260

Unclean Spirits Issuing from the Mouths of the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet, c. 1255 – 1260

While many of these illustrations and works are quite beautiful in their rendering, colors, and detail, some are also quite gruesome and disturbing, leaving some scholars to question why such images and creatures were so popular. One theory is that these depictions also served as religious allegories and posed moral questions. Many individuals also believed these creatures truly existed, as they had been exposed to tales not only within their villages but also from within the Bible (which would have been considered factual information) and from passages written by the likes of Aristotle and Pliny stating that beasts “existed in the East” or in Ethiopia.

In turn, artists carried over these tales into paintings and illustrations for the Bestiaries, providing detailed visual information regarding beasts for the illiterate of the time with a bit of imagination blended in.

About Megan Patiry

A wide-eyed food and travel writer and editor with a passion for adventure, culture, gluten-free treats, and the winding path less traveled.

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