In the Middle Ages, a new type of book swept across high society, capturing the imagination of Western Europe. First developed in the 2nd century in Ancient Greece, compendiums of wild animals and mythical beasts surged in popularity in 12th century Europe and beyond. Named bestiaries, the illuminated manuscripts included miniature paintings illustrating various creatures alongside a moral lesson relating to the animals’ supposed characteristics.
At the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, an exhibition of one third of all remaining bestiaries, as well as objects inspired by the creatures within, is on display until mid-August.
In these books, unicorns, dragons and griffins are interspersed amongst birds, fish and mammals. The intermixing of the real and fantastical in bestiaries led many to presume that Medieval people believed these imaginary creatures existed. However, more recent scholarship has suggested that people in the Middle Ages were interested instead in the iconography of creatures – real or imagined – and the Christian morality each could represent.
The unicorn was an important legendary creature in Medieval mythology, as its capture and sacrifice could be interpreted as an allegory for Jesus’s death and salvation according to the Christian faith. As well as appearing in books, the unicorn was a popular symbol on tapestries.
The term ‘bestiary’ now describes any collection or description of animals and its legacy reaches right up to the 21st century. The Medieval imagination – and it’s bizarre, anatomically impossible depictions of real and mythical beasts – continues to inspire artists today.