Anonymous, A mother bear licking her cub to give it its shape, 2nd quarter of the 13th century Southern England (Salisbury?), 310 x 230 mm. Harley 4751, f. 15v, detail, British Library

Beauty and the Bestiary

The Medieval Bestiary was very much the Wikipedia of its day – though without the scores of undergraduates dredging its pages in search of tenuous references for their assignments the night prior to a deadline. Still, with each, the primary focus is, or was, to educate and enlighten, albeit, as far as the Medieval Bestiary is concerned, with a distinctly Christian filter overlaid. As the Horatian quote reads, “The aim of the poet is to inform or delight, or to combine together, in what he says, both pleasure and applicability to life.” Certainly, these words had a profound impact on the artists, writers and clergy of the middle ages, and we can see these traits mirrored in the textuality and artistry of many, if not all of the bestiary manuscripts we preserve today.

 Anonymous, Adam naming the animals (Detail) c. 1230 South-eastern England (possibly Rochester), 30.0 x 21.5 Cm Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 34v, British Library
Anonymous, Adam naming the animals (Detail) c. 1230 South-eastern England (possibly Rochester), 30.0 x 21.5 Cm Royal 12 F. xiii, f. 34v, British Library

With that in mind, when challenged to consider the theme of beauty, relative to art or literature that prominently features beasts or the natural world, a Medieval Bestiary likely isn’t the first place anyone would think to look. Though texts like the Rochester Bestiary were often richly and vividly illuminated with images of real and fantastical beasts and natural phenomena, the artistry of which is tangibly exquisite and ‘beautiful’ in technique (if at times comical); the truth is that, in its cultural and historical context, the textual and artistic focus of the Medieval Bestiary is rarely on the appreciation of natural beauty, or the portrayal of beauty for beauty’s sake. Instead, these texts, and their authors, concern themselves with the presentation of predominantly Christian codes of morality where, more often than not, horror, shame, vanities and religious and social taboos were the presiding motifs.

Anonymous, A mother bear licking her cub to give it its shape,  2nd quarter of the 13th century Southern England (Salisbury?), 310 x 230 mm. Harley 4751, f. 15v, detail, British Library
Anonymous, A mother bear licking her cub to give it its shape,
2nd quarter of the 13th century
Southern England (Salisbury?), 310 x 230 mm.
Harley 4751, f. 15v, detail, British Library

Where, then, is beauty to be found and appreciated in an artistic and literary work like this? Well you could certainly argue that it isn´t. At least not explicitly. Still, there is something to be said of the relationship between man, beast and faith that these texts and their accompanying illuminations engender that goes some distance towards highlighting a beautiful quality in these works. Whether you’re being confronted with animalistically allegorical representations of the grotesque, the frightful, the abhorrent or the shameful – to list but a few, and in the barest detail – the overarching motif is that these beastly portrayals are representations of God’s interaction with man. To the Medieval mind the creatures are mirrors of His design for earth. As John Bascom writes, “The world is full of God’s creations, and he who would enjoy them must at least have sympathy with God as a worker.” The beauty, then, is in the spiritual and moral connection that the Medieval Bestiary and its accompanying illuminations helped to establish. Furthermore, beauty continues to be observed in the way that these images have fed into the creation and retelling of stories and myths for centuries since.

For further reading on the theme of beasts and the appreciation of beauty in art, visit:

Beauty of the Beast - Parkstone International
Beauty of the Beast – Parkstone International