History, Purpose, and Audience of Medieval Bestiaries
Medieval bestiaries employ real and fantastic animal iconography in order to convey allegories of vice, and to instruct clerical and secular audiences on leading a life worthy of salvation. The earliest known bestiary dates to the tenth century. The majority of traditional bestiaries were produced in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Production declined in the fourteenth century when Books of Hours and Psalters became popular. Bestiaries are derived from the Latin B text of the Physiologus and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, both organized real and fantastic animals into chapters concerning their symbolic characteristics and Christian morality. The Physiologus was generally devoid of illustration but used descriptions of animals as spiritual guidance for Christian behavior and typological references to Christ and His salvation (Baxter 29-33). For example, the description of a lamb would be a reference to Christ as a sacrifice of Himself in the crucifixion. The Bestiary emerges as an extension to the theological Physiologus and the taxonomical Etymologiae in the development of the moral iconography into a didactic visual representation of vice and virtue (Clark 3). This was achieved by adding illustrations of the animals and enriching their symbolism to include a multiplicity of moral undertones.
Such animals and creatures as owls, sirens, cats, and goats represented, in the traditional bestiary, the descriptions and moral lessons in the text. They are rendered stylistically, un-naturalistically in form and behavior, and are usually devoid of identifiable backgrounds. Similar illustration techniques and their accompaniment of the bestiary text may indicate the emergence of an iconographic tradition among the bestiaries; there is even evidence of at least one model text. Characteristics of certain moral qualities were thus attributed to an animal for ideological and symbolic meaning, rather than taxonomical purposes (Hassig 3, 8, 10). Associating a wide range of allegorical meanings pertaining to behaviors related to lust, avarice, marriage, and spiritual ignorance to irrational or fantastic animals is a useful instructional tool as it allows the viewer to recognize humanity’s ability to visualize sins or social issues and inspire the aversion or repentance of them (Brown 54).
Although the bestiary’s allegorical images accompany a written text they are also identifiable independently from it, which would have allowed illiterates familiar with the moral stories to take advantage of the lessons. The viewer may have recognized them from biblical stories using metaphorical beasts such as the ones in the book of Revelation or a sermon given by the clergy or the laymen that had been inspired by bestiaries. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 emphasized the didactic capabilities of sermons, and a significant percentage of bestiaries are combined with sermons as exempla (Hassig 171,175). Allegorizing certain sins or virtues through the iconography of familiar animals and creatures simplified the preaching and understanding of church doctrines, such as chastity and the virgin birth, and aided in the dissemination of moral lessons and religious belief to not only a monastic, but also a secular audience (Hassig 171). Symbols of virtues, such as the beaver representing chastity, offered the hope of repentance and salvation to viewers. Others, discussed in the following section will discuss symbols of vice.
A common allegory for the sin of lust, sexual promiscuity, and the dangers of carnal pleasures that lead to spiritual death, is the siren. Within the medieval bestiary the siren is usually depicted in groups of three females, human from the head to the waist and as either a bird or some type of fish from the waist to the feet. The detail of the dancing and music-playing sirens (Figure 1) from the Douce Bestiary (circa 1300) is an example of three representations of bird-like sirens. They represent lust, prostitution, and the dangers of worldly pleasures. Sometimes the iconographic program includes a narrative image of the sirens lulling the sailors to their drowning as in the details of the margin of folio 138 recto (Figure 2), which is also from the Douce Bestiary. The relationship between sirens and sailors is derived from Greek mythology in which sailors were warned of the sirens’ beautiful songs. Sirens would use music and nudity to distract sailors so that their boats would crash on the sirens’ island. The sirens would then rip apart the shipwrecked sailors. Although the highly stylized use of line outlines the sirens’ breasts are from an angle, as if the viewer were looking at the sirens from above, clearly the central focus of the image is on the nudity of the upper body and the exposure of the breasts. The nipples are even drawn in small black dots or circular patterns.
The nudity and anatomical detail of the sirens associates them with the iconography of lust and prostitution. The rendering of the torsos and heads as human indicates that even with the capability of thought, they exercise and embody animal and carnal, rather than spiritual, desires (Brown 60). The allusion to prostitution was sometimes heightened by the contemporary dress seen in certain images of sirens (Hassig 79). Figure 2 depicts the act of lulling the sailors to their destruction by juxtaposing the boat and the dancing sirens implying both the dangers of female sexuality and desire, and the destruction of the human soul trapped by temporal, worldly desires. Other animals that are associated with allegories of lust are hircus, or he-goats, as seen in Figure 3. The large genitals, sideways glance, and downward curving horns allude to sexual urges and evil. Simia, apes, and cats are also representations of female sexuality.
In bestiaries the allegory of sinners, spiritual ignorance, blindness and the consequence of these vices are represented by various iconographical depictions of the owl. The owl is portrayed with feathers created by stylized curvilinear lines, easily discernable hooked beak, round eyes, and sometimes horn-like ears. The medieval bestiary associates the owl with impurity, since it nests with its droppings, and darkness because of its nocturnal habits (Syme 172). Depictions of the owl being attacked by other birds, as in Figure 5, represent the hostility of the virtuous against the immoral. The birds attacking and swarming the unresponsive owl in a detail from the Bodley 764 Bestiary (Figure 5) are representations of the scorn that is awaiting sinners after death and the eventual destruction of their soul. The idyllic nature of the owl is exemplified in another detail of the Bodley 764 bestiary, Noctua (Figure 4), as it rests on its perch, and its proximity to evil is shown in its dark brown feathers that also represent extreme carnal desire (Miyazaki 34). The use of the night sky to represent the owl’s nocturnal nature also exemplifies spiritual ignorance and blindness, which is usually used in relation to superstition (Miyazaki 33). Other bestial examples of superstition and witchcraft are cats and bats.
Medieval interpretations of the ass describe it as a beast that is useful in labor; but its ignorance, slowness, and stubborn nature make it difficult to control (Payne 16). In a detail of the ass from the Bodley 764 bestiary (Figure 6), a man is depicted in the process of prodding the beast with a hot stick in an effort to force him inside a building. The device moving water inside suggests the beast is intended for work, but its position outside of the door suggests the difficulty in encouraging its labor. The representation of the ass within the bestiary thus functions as a moral lesson against idleness and stupidity.
The iconography and allegories of the medieval bestiary influenced the marginalia of late Gothic medieval texts. They were also appropriated into the representation of courtly love in the Bestiare d’Amour, and may have been influential in the iconography of emblems. Bestial iconography is found within the margins of several Psalters, such as the Queen Mary Psalter and the Lambeth Apocalypse (Hassig 178). Rather than exemplify an allegory or a moral lesson on a vice or virtue, the bestial activities ridicule human desires. For example, farting or naked beasts next to a sacred text may appear crude and comical, but they delineate the contrast between the spiritual and corporeal (Bovey 45). Influenced by the moral instruction of the bestiary illustrations, the crude actions of the marginal beasts further the condemnation of worldly desires through derision.
The Bestiary was given new meaning in the fourteenth-century with Richard de Fournival’s Bestiare d’Amour. This meaning was achieved through the appropriation of bestial allegorical figures and their adaptation as symbols of carnal pleasure in courtly love (Hassig 63). The secularization and entertainment value of marginalia and literature influenced by courtly love signifies the declining use of allegorical beasts to moralize sin and the importance of repentance.
The medieval bestiary had a profound impact on the emblem books of the Renaissance, as the animal symbolism was incorporated into the emblems’ visual representation of abstract concepts. Cesare Ripa’s sixteenth century Iconologia and its representations of vices and virtues demonstrate this influence. The emblem for ignobleness shown in Figure 7 depicts a woman sweeping, an owl atop her head, and ears that resemble those of an ass in order to signify her low class. Ripa asserts that the ass represents the unwillingness to be instructed which follows the bestiary lesson that the ass is difficult to move (Ripa 76). He explains that the owl symbolizes bad luck and inability to behave virtuously (Ripa 81). The owl is again used in the emblem of superstition (Figure 8), signifying bad luck and spiritual blindness. Lust is also signified in Figure 9 by the he-goat rising up the seated lady’s leg.