Book of Beasts

A bestiary is a book of beasts, conjured up in medieval times. And while it was then a codification of animals that was highly regarded and widely read, the “medieval zoologists were not as much concerned with animal life as they were with their doctrinal significance.”[1] God over Man, Man over Animals, and so forth. There were several versions of the bestiary and just as many authors. Not always unbiased, the scribes, according to Richard Randall’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Cloister Bestiary, would stifle anything they deemed ‘fallacious.’ In addition to lessons about nature and commentaries on natural phenomena the book included moral and religious lessons as well as fanciful illustrations of the beasts—based quite often on hearsay and personal stories and, one might add, on a vivid imagination. Among the rhinoceros, the whale, and the mouse (La Souris), for example, were the unicorn, the dragon, and the griffin. The everyday readers, without pause, accepted all of these creatures as true, they had no evidence to the contrary.

The bestiary has had enduring appeal; in its concept contemporary artists have found a playground for reinterpretation and style. The French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, known for his provocative paintings of performing artists, scenes of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge, begged the author Jules Renard to illustrate Renard’s Histoires Naturelles that would become the exemplar for all modern bestiaries. Completing the work in 1899, two years before his death at the age of thirty-six, Toulouse-Lautrec showed in the twenty-three drawings some of his ‘most refined draftsmanship.’


[1] Aura Beckhöfer-Fialho, “Medieval Bestiaries and the Birth of Zoology.”

Additional sources: Richard Randall’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Cloister Bestiary; Matthias Arnold, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1864-1901.

(image reproduced for non-commercial use only)


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