Friday, August 21, 2020

Another fine book from Getty: Elizabeth Morrison's Book of Beasts


2 of 2,755

Morrison, Elizabeth, ed. Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2019. Pp. xiv, 340. $60.00. ISBN: 978-1-606-06590-7.

   Review by Scott G. Bruce

        Fordham University

This sumptuous catalogue is an awe-inspiring testament to an unprecedented exhibition of medieval bestiaries hosted by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles from May 14 to August 18, 2019. Based on late antique models and reaching a height of popularity in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, medieval bestiaries were collections of pithy stories about the nature of animals (and often plants and stones as well) that explained their symbolic meaning in a medieval Christian worldview. Some of these animals were common, like dogs and horses; others were exotic, like elephants and panthers, while others still were mythological, like unicorns and dragons. 

Medieval bestiaries varied in content, containing anywhere between fifty and one hundred anecdotes, but they all served the same purpose: to educate and entertain medieval readers with stories about manifestations of Christian truth in God's creation. The Getty Museum exhibition was an unprecedented event that brought together dozens of manuscripts representing more than a third of the illustrated medieval bestiaries in existence [me: !], as well as premodern art objects depicting animals in a variety of media.

The exhibition catalogue under review, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, braids together many short essays and over one hundred descriptions of manuscripts and other medieval artifacts. Part One ("Introducing the Bestiary") opens the catalogue with a useful introduction to the history of medieval bestiaries by Elizabeth Morrison, followed by samples of their most enduring stories about the lion, the tiger, the unicorn, the griffin, the elephant, the beaver, the bonnacon, the ape, the fox, the eagle, the pelican, the siren, the dragon, the hydra, and the whale, each accompanied by a full-color illustration. This tantalizing preview beckons the reader to the visual and intellectual riches that follow. Part Two ("Exploring the Bestiary") comprises seven essays. Sarah Kay offers a survey of the textual history of the bestiary tradition from the Physiologus, a late antique collection of Greek moralized animal lore, to the Latin books of beasts that it inspired in the Carolingian period, to the longer, more elaborate bestiaries of the later Middle Ages. Xenia Muratova celebrates the diverse ways that medieval illuminators interpreted the text of Latin bestiaries, noting that "an impressive highly individual approach to the pictorial interpretation of identical models testifies to the creative independence of the artists, the variety of their artistic temperaments, and the richness and diversity of their stylistic methods and schools" (40). Elizabeth Morrison draws attention to the challenges presented by bestiaries for the planners of medieval manuscripts, in particular how they negotiated the amount of space necessary for a work of variable length and its accompanying illuminations, especially when they used different exemplars for the text and the images. Ilya Dines examines the presence of five thirteenth-century bestiaries in multi-text manuscripts to see if the texts copied alongside them inflect their purpose for medieval readers. Since these bestiaries generally appeared in the company of other didactic texts, she concludes that they supported "the same didactic and theological function as the rest of the texts and miscellanies themselves" (71). Susan Crane offers a case study of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodleian Ms. 764, a mid-thirteenth-century bestiary lush with illumination, to show how some medieval artists diverged from received pictorial traditions when illustrating these texts. In this case, she argues that the illuminations of cats and hawks in this particular manuscript suggest that "the Bodleian artist turned away from Christian moralizations to favor the fascinations of the living world" (81). Closing out this part of the book, Emma Campbell examines translations of the Latin bestiary into vernacular languages with an emphasis on medieval French, while Larisa Grollemond charts the interest of secular readers in vernacular translations of this text in the thirteenth century, particularly in a courtly context.

Part Three ("Beyond the Bestiary") features several essays that explore how, in the words of Meredith Cohen, the animal lore of medieval bestiaries "migrated from the book to all other forms of representational art, both secular and sacred" (177). Its widespread influence is evident in textual and pictorial cross-pollination with encyclopedias of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Emily Steiner), with world maps known as mappae mundi made in the decades around 1300 (Debra Higgs Strickland), and with early modern cartography, like the illustrated nautical chart rendered by Mateo Prunes in the sixteenth century (Chet van Duzer). This section of the book also features a short, but thoughtful, essay by Rebecca Hill on beast lore in the Islamic tradition (260-261) in a collection otherwise dominated by western European source materials. An epilogue by Larisa Grollemond explores the legacy of medieval bestiary images on modern and contemporary artists in the twentieth century.

This exquisite catalogue is sure to interest premodern scholars across a wide range of disciplines. Over the past decade, the so-called "animal turn" in medieval literary studies has stepped in time with renewed interest in environmental history among medieval historians. As a result, animals have become a common topic of interdisciplinary inquiry into the medieval past. While this catalogue has immense value as a storehouse of information about and interpretation of the medieval bestiary tradition and the scholarship it has inspired, it also has the potential to play an important role in outreach to non-specialists. Bestiaries are among the most intriguing and accessible medieval sources. As Elizabeth Morrison reminds us, many of our colloquial expressions about animals--"King of Beasts, crying crocodile tears, licking someone into shape, wily as a fox, and perhaps even monkey on my back" (10)--find their origin in the medieval bestiary tradition. With its stunning illustrations and attractive design, this volume is an excellent resource for specialists, but it is also a provocative introduction to this aspects of medieval European culture for discerning readers interested in the premodern past. ​

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