St. Petersburg Bestiary

Rf. Lat.Q.v.V.1 - National Library of Russia (St. Petersburg, Russia)

Alternate Titles:

Bestiario de San Petersburgo, Bestiarium aus St. Petersburg

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Alternate Titles

Bestiario de San Petersburgo
Bestiarium aus St. Petersburg

Extent / Format

182 pages / 20.0 x 14.5 cm

Late 12th century

114 miniatures (4 of them full-page), most of them with gold background

Former owners

Francisc de la Morlier
P. Dubrovsky

Short description

The literary genre of the bestiary is among the most beloved book genres of the medieval world. This is a particularly richly illuminated piece of animal literature, which moralistically described creatures from both the animal kingdom and the world of fantasy. These illuminated manuscripts possessed a particularly high importance in 12th and 13th century England. The St. Petersburg Bestiary is one of the most beautiful and precious examples of these codices. It is decorated to an exceedingly rich degree with colorful miniatures, most of which are set against a lofty gold leaf background.

Facsimile editions available


St. Petersburg Bestiary

A bestiary is a type of medieval literature that allegorically connects moralized attributes, actual or supposed, of animals and mythical creatures, with the Christian doctrine of salvation. Bestiaries are among the most beloved manuscripts of the Middle Ages and were often richly illustrated. One of the most beautiful and most precious examples of this book genre is the St. Petersburg Bestiary. The work is furnished with a total of **114 fantastical, colored miniatures. Four of them take up a whole page and were set against an opulent gold background, as is nearly every picture in the manuscript. The manuscript was composed in England during the early 12th century and represents one of the first documents written in the Gothic style of illumination.

An International Codex

The liturgical genre of the bestiary was of great importance in 12th and 13th century England. Inquiries into the classification of its content and style have always been fraught with difficulties. The manuscript’s sites of origin are unknown or cannot be determined for certain, the source and iconography of the work are often unclear. The St. Petersburg Bestiary probably originated ca. 1190 in an English monastery in the northern Midlands. It found itself in the 15th and 16th centuries, which has been confirmed through numerous notes, mostly animal names, in French. A note in Latin at the end of the text indicates an owner at the beginning of the 17th century: Franciscus de la Morlière. In the course of the centuries, the manuscript found itself in the library of Pierre Séguir, the director of the royal chancellery under two French kings, who possessed one of the most important book collections of his time. From there the codex reached the famous Parisian Saint-Germain-des-Près Abbey** by way of inheritance. The manuscript came into the hands of its first Russian owner. This was Pierre Dumbrowsky, a diplomat and bibliophile whose name is immortalized in various inscriptions. In 1805, the work was incorporated with the rest of Dumbrowky’s library into the holdings of the then Imperial Library in St. Petersburg. Today, this is the Russian National Library.

A Luxurious Image Program

The St. Petersburg Bestiary was one of the first luxury bestiaries with miniature paintings that utilized techniques for applying precious gold leaf. In addition to the depictions of animals, the work is furnished with a image cycle of the history of creation. The miniatures of the bestiary were completed even before a scribe composed the text by hand. This is particularly noticeable in a few places, where it is clear that the lines of text had to avoid the pictorial scenes. The miniatures of the bestiary were created by at least two different illuminators. One of the artists concentrated on the design of the depictions of animals, while the other took care of the illustration of the creation cycle. A few special features can be recognized in the style of the illumination that make it possible to date the year to ca. 1190. The vivid alignment and the noble, harmonious coloration of the pictures attest to a painting style that recurred often in the English literature of this time. Particularly worthy of note is the design of the figures, above all the lines of the faces and the folds of the garments of those persons depicted. Instead of a flat painting style, the masters responsible for the bestiary were able to make their figures appear vivid and dynamic.

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