Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Animals in Medieval Art

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  • Animals, both real and fantastic, occupied an important place in medieval art and thought. Artists readily employed animal motifs, along with foliate designs, as part of their decorative vocabulary. Early medieval jewelry, for instance, abounds with animal forms elongated and twisted into intricate patterns (1992.59.1). Deluxe Bibles and gospel books often make use of animal designs to enliven the sacred text (1999.364.2). Animal forms were employed to imbue utilitarian objects with majesty (1994.244) and even humor.


    In addition to providing intriguing interpretations of animals, bestiaries offered tales about the existence of bizarre and loathsome creatures, many of which appeared in medieval art.


    In addition to providing intriguing interpretations of animals, bestiaries offered tales about the existence of bizarre and loathsome creatures, many of which appeared in medieval art.

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    Animal Symbolism in Christian Art

    Animals also carried a rich variety of symbolic associations often drawn from the past. The lamb served as an important sacrificial animal in ancient Near Eastern religious rites, including those of the Israelites. Christians adopted the lamb as a symbol of Christ, emphasizing his sacrifice for humanity (17.190.38). The griffin, regarded in antiquity as an attendant of Apollo and a keeper of light, retained its role as a guardian figure for the dead even in later Christian contexts (2000.81). Artists frequently represented the lively biblical accounts of human interaction with animals, from the days of Creation (17.190.156), to Noah's Ark, to Jonah and the Big Fish (77.7), to Daniel in the Den of Lions (1987.442.4). The Bible is also rich in animal symbolism. The description in all four Gospels of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove from heaven (Matt. 3:16, Matt 1:10, Luke 3:21, John 1:32) offered a ready image. Doves crafted out of precious materials could be found suspended above the altar in both Byzantine and Western churches (17.190.344). By the fifth century, the four winged beasts described in Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation were firmly associated with the four writers of the Gospels and thereafter became a standard feature in the decoration of luxury gospel books and their covers (17.190.757). Jesus' personal humility was demonstrated by the account of his riding a donkey into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, an event reenacted annually in Germanic lands during the late Middle Ages.


    In the calendars of feasts found in religious manuscripts, animals, as zodiacal symbols and as participants in seasonal activities, provided a visual shorthand for the months of the year; in the margins of the manuscripts, animals appear in domestic settings: cats playing with strings, dogs chewing bones (54.1.2).


    The Bestiary

    Animals also served as vehicles for religious allegory and moral instruction. The Bestiary developed in medieval Europe in the twelfth century. Based on the Greek Physiologus of around the second century, often with important additions from Christian scholars like Saint Ambrose, Isidore of Seville, and Rabanus Maurus, the Bestiary is a collection of descriptions and interpretations of animals, intended as both a natural history and a series of moral and religious lessons. It was widely read in the Middle Ages and served as a source for artistic invention (22.58.1). In addition to providing intriguing interpretations of animals, bestiaries offered tales about the existence of bizarre and loathsome creatures, many of which appeared in medieval art. Legends associated with these imaginary creatures proved particularly enduring. The basilisk, for example, described in Pliny the Elder's Natural History of ca. 79, is mentioned in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales of the late fourteenth century. Equated with the devil, the basilisk reputedly could kill by its very smell, by a glance, or even by the sound of its hissing. The manticore, from Persian legend, with the face of a man, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion, possessed a seductive voice likened to the sound of a fine flute. It represented the siren song of temptation that surrounded the Christian soul on its perilous journey through an earthly existence. The centaur of Greek mythology, with the body of a horse and the upper torso of a man, was deemed particularly lustful but sensitive enough to cry in sorrow (10.37.2).


    Exotic Animals

    It is generally assumed that the portrayal of exotic animals in medieval art must rely on descriptions in bestiaries and earlier representations. However, such beasts were sometimes sent as diplomatic gifts to European rulers or brought back as treasure from pilgrimage or Crusade. According to legend, Charlemagne received an elephant from Harun-al-Rashid, caliph of Baghdad in 797. Camels were known through contacts with nearby Muslim lands (61.219). Edgar of Scotland (r. 1097–1107), perhaps regretting his choice of an appropriate souvenir to bring back from Crusade, presented a camel to the king of Ireland.


    Henry I of England (r. 1100–1135), maintained a small zoo, described by the chronicler William of Malmesbury: "Henry . . was extremely fond of the wonders of distant countries, begging with great delight, as I have observed, from foreign kings, lions, leopards, lynxes, or camels—animals which England does not produce. He had a park called Woodstock, in which he used to foster his favourites of this kind." Nor was this an isolated example: Wenceslas of Bohemia, visiting Paris with his father as a teenager in 1378, asked to see the lions that King Charles V kept (at today's Porte des Lions). Apes, from exotic lands yet not ferocious, were a favorite subject of late medieval artists, who delighted in showing them busy performing human tasks, engaged in industrious (1990.119.3) or mischievous behavior (52.50).


    Animals, Sport, and the Hunt

    Medieval artists illustrated hunting in a variety of media, and especially in luxury goods for a wealthy clientele. The art of hunting with falcons, championed by Emperor Frederick II (died 1250), was widely understood as an emblem of nobility (47.101.60), and an aristocratic pastime, in which both men and women participated (41.100.160). Falconry followed prescribed rituals, including bathing the falcon in a pool of water (2011.93). In late medieval art, stag hunts were often presented as allegories of the trials of human life (50.145.4). The hunt of the mythical unicorn on the famous series of tapestries at The Cloisters is particularly rich in its representations of real and imaginary, domestic and exotic animals. The unicorn was sometimes considered emblematic of Christ, but it is difficult to see how that metaphor could apply to the tapestry hanging that shows the unicorn violently defending himself against his attackers (37.80.4). The beauty of hunting dogs (which were often listed among the valuable possessions in the inventories of the French nobility in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, along with their silken collars and leashes) is sensitively portrayed in the series.


    While falconry involved careful training and deer hunting adept horsemanship, the netting of birds required more cunning than speed (1979.185). Animals, both real and legendary, frequently appear on works of art associated with more sedentary pastimes, including game pieces (16.106) and boxes for storing them (1976.327).


    Animals and Heraldry

    Images of animals are frequently found on the coats of arms of individual families. The arms of the Dazzi family of Florence, for example, include the head of a bull (56.171.156); the arms of the Porcelet family, patrons of the abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert near Montpellier, feature a boar, a reference to their name, which means "piglet" in French (25.120.127). A double-headed eagle denotes the Holy Roman Empire, and, retrospectively, the empire of ancient Rome (47.101.3).

    Barbara Drake Boehm
    Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Melanie Holcomb
    Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art