Painted with gold leaf and tempera pigment on parchment by anonymous craftsmen and itinerant artisans, each manuscript is a variation on what came before, depicting the same animals and stories and emphasizing the divine hand in the design of the natural universe. Each is also a singular work of art in its own right, once occupying shelf space in well-appointed homes of noblemen throughout France and Germany, but mainly England.
Broken down into five sections, the new show begins with the bestiary’s most recognizable creature and one that has endured to today—the unicorn. It is often depicted being lured into a trap, baited by a pure maiden in whose lap it rests its head. In a moment of distraction, its side is pierced by the spear of a waiting hunter, suggesting the crucifixion, a persistent theme in the genre.
“The word ‘atheist’ didn’t even exist in the Middle Ages. Christianity permeated every aspect of life in a pervasive way,” said senior curator Elizabeth Morrison as she set up the show’s second section, which focuses on the development of the book’s textual and visual tradition over the centuries. While the descriptions and religious allegorical elements remain consistent, their representations vary based on artistic interpretation.
In a section called “Beyond the Bestiary,” the book’s influence and legacy is revealed in similar manuscripts from the Arabic and Hebrew, with accompanying Aesop-like moral tales. “The animals developed into a visual language of their own, escaped from the pages of the manuscript into tapestries and metal work and even became the basis of natural history,” noted Morrison.