Genre: Bestiaries

Domestic and Exotic Animals, Fantastic Creatures, and Fanciful Mythical Monsters in the Service of Faith
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Bestiaries

Among illuminated medieval manuscripts, the bestiary or “book of beasts” was second only to the Bible and book of hours in popularity. The depiction of dozens or hundreds of beasts like those found in the Peterborough Bestiary offered great opportunities for illuminators to exercise their artistic creativity.

Some, like the Oxford Bestiary, made extensive use of precious gold leaf. However, these were not merely proto-zoological texts, animals were treated as allegorical creatures associated with a moralizing lesson from Christian theology. 

This genre of medieval manuscript is rooted in antiquity and bestiary manuscripts represent some of the most popular, artful, and fascinating medieval texts to survive today. Thus, bestiaries offer a unique glimpse into the mindset and outlook of medieval Europeans. It is for all of these reasons that bestiaries were so popular during the Middle Ages, and continue to be some of the most fascinating specimens of medieval art today.  

St. Petersburg Bestiary

Family of Lions

As the ‘king of the beasts’, the lion is the first animal featured in this splendid 12th century English bestiary. It follows an image cycle of the history of Creation, including Noah gathering the animals for his ark. The miniatures are iconographically unique with splendid gold grounds and are some of the earliest attributed to the Gothic style.
 
The artist’s lack of familiarity with lions is evident from the fact that both parents are depicted with manes and was likely working from a model, as was typical. Nonetheless, they are depicted with loving faces as they lick their cubs. Above, Christ stands barefooted in the “B” initial giving the sign of the benediction as though the capital letter were a door into the shimmering golden divine.

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