In Pictures: Real and Imagined Creatures from the Medieval World

A collection of Medieval bestiary books go on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Unknown Franco-Flemish artist, Legendary Peoples, circa. 1277, tempera colors, pen and ink, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment, 23 × 16 cm. Courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Unknown Franco-Flemish artist, Legendary Peoples, circa. 1277, tempera colours, pen and ink, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment, 23 × 16 cm. Courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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.

Unknown English artist, Manticore; Parandrus; Yale, circa. 1200–1210, tempera on parchment, 22 × 16 cm. Courtesy: The British Library; photograph: Granger

Unknown English artist, Manticore; Parandrus; Yale, circa. 1200–1210, tempera on parchment, 22 × 16 cm. Courtesy: The British Library; photograph: Granger

Unknown Franco-Flemish artist, Whale, circa. 1270, tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment,19 × 14 cm. Courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Unknown Franco-Flemish artist, Whale, circa. 1270, tempera colours, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, 19 × 14 cm. Courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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.

Unknown French and Belgian artist, Griffin, 1460, 41 × 29 cm. Courtesy: The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands

Unknown French and Belgian artist, Griffin, 1460, tempera on parchment, 41 × 29 cm. Courtesy: The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands

Unknown English artist, Adam Naming the Animals, circa. 1250–60, pen and ink drawings tinted with body colour and translucent washes on parchment, 21 × 16 cm. Courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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.

Unknown Belgian artist, Tapestry with Flowers and Animals, circa. 1530–45, wool and silk, 3.5 × 40 m. Courtesy: Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of Mrs. C. J. Martin in memory of Charles Jairus Martin

Unknown Belgian artist, Tapestry with Flowers and Animals, circa. 1530–45, wool and silk, 3.5 × 4 m. Courtesy: Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of Mrs. C. J. Martin in memory of Charles Jairus Martin

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.

Unknown German artist, Unicorn Aquamanile, circa 1425–50, copper alloy, 39 × 29 × 11 cm. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Irwin Untermyer

Unknown German artist, Unicorn Aquamanile, circa 1425–50, copper alloy, 39 × 29 × 11 cm. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Irwin Untermyer

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.

‘Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World’ runs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA from 14 May – 18 August 2019.

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