Peterborough Bestiary

MS 53 - Parker Library, Corpus Christi College (Cambridge, United Kingdom)

Alternate Titles:

Bestiarium aus Peterborough

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Alternate Titles

Bestiarium aus Peterborough

Extent / Format

44 pages / 34.8 x 23.6 cm

Around 1300

104 miniatures and 108 initials adorn all pages of the manuscript

Short description

The Peterborough Bestiary is a lovely, illustrated story of animals, of both the familiar and fantastic sort. Even mystical creatures like phoenixes and unicorns make their appearance. In over 100 miniatures throughout the entire text, the artist put forth his best effort to depict such creatures and fantasies with as much realism as can be expected. All told, this gloriously embroidered work of calligraphy is endowed with golden and brightly colored miniatures, initials, and other fine illustrations.

Facsimile editions available


Peterborough Bestiary

1300, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, Parker Library, MS 53
The Peterborough Bestiary represents a quite influential example of the much beloved 12th Century-era of animal-themed literature in calligraphy. The described and interpreted text contains uncountable amounts of small illustrations of landscape, and also embroidery of wonderful initials and leaf paintings. Within this text are familiar as well as exotic animals and mythical creatures shown, which are lovingly and as realistically as possible displayed.

Fantastic Depictions of Animals

In over 100 miniatures, animals such as Lions, beavers, different sorts of birds, crocodiles, and elephants, but also mythical creatures like unicorns, phoenixes, and satyrs, are painting in gold or a kind of golden cream. They illustrate the relevant text passages and include exhaustive detail in describing each single animal, which most of them have a Christian or moral connection. For example, there is an illustration of a crow that the purpose of representing the love and worry one is weighed by when raising children. The text is based on the “Physiologus”, composed in 200 AD, which was an early Christian text that concerned itself with nature as well. Over the following centuries, “Physiologus” was many times supplemented and added to (for example, through Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae), and translated into many other languages and thereby positively changed. Moving to the high Middle Ages, such descriptions of nature and myth became beloved subjects and offered calligraphers the opportunity to be inspired to create their own depictions of animals in nature.

Glorious Design

It was not such an easy task for the artists of this time to paint pictures of exotic animals, for they had never seen such creatures before. The only available templates were based off descriptions that themselves drifted into the fantastic. The artist of the Peterborough Bestiary designed his calligraphy in a diversified way. The depictions of animals are directed integrated with the text itself and not isolated in boxes separate from the words. The small rectangular pictures of fields are brightly colored and richly embroidered in gold. The artistic style appears very gothic in the natural depictions of the animals, who are often shown in a burst of movement. Next to such depictions, the very special artistic arrangement of the bestiary is given. Many gilded initials are also within the text with floral artwork. The initials are partially filled with wonderful portraits of men and woman, which serve as ornamentation.

Exotic Magic

In these magnificent pictures, the reader can plunge him or herself into the study of these informative but also amusing readings and can get to know the displayed realm, which one surely has never seen before. This instance of the Exotic and Unknown is owed to the presence of such mystical creatures as Unicorns or a Satyr, who are juxtaposed with more typical animals in everyday life. That such bestiaries were based on medieval knowledge, primarily in England and Northern France, increases the entertainment and artistic value of the book, which even in today’s world of advanced scientific understanding, will emit a strong sense of magic to the beholder.

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