Westminster Abbey Bestiary

Ms. 22 - Westminster Abbey Library (London, United Kingdom)

Alternate Titles:

Bestiario de Westminster, Bestiarium aus Westminster

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Codiology

Alternate Titles

Bestiario de Westminster
Bestiarium aus Westminster

Type
Extent / Format

130 pages / 22.0 x 16.0 cm

Origin
Date
Around 1275-1290
Style
Genre
Language
Artist / School

Author: Isidore of Seville

Illustrations

164 miniatures

Short description

The library of London’s significant Westminster Abbey contains a grandiose jewel of medieval illumination: the famous Westminster Abbey Bestiary. Emerging at the end of the 13th century, the Westminster Abbey Bestiary is counted among the most beautiful of its kind. Wonderfully designed, exceedingly entertaining miniatures illustrate the numerous descriptions of animals and creatures both real and fantastical. The moral-didactic agenda of this manuscript fades into the background in the face of its grandiose furnishings, but can be traced in the Latin-French text nonetheless.

Facsimile editions available

Description

Westminster Abbey Bestiary

The library of London’s significant Westminster Abbey contains a grandiose jewel of medieval illumination: the famous Westminster Abbey Bestiary. Emerging at the end of the 13th century, the Westminster Abbey Bestiary is counted among the most beautiful of its kind. Wonderfully designed, exceedingly entertaining miniatures illustrate the numerous descriptions of animals and creatures both real and fantastical. The moral-didactic agenda of this manuscript fades into the background in the face of its grandiose furnishings, but can be traced in the Latin-French text nonetheless.

A Fantastical Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom

Bestiaries are collections of short description of all kinds of animals and fantastical creatures, which are supplemented with a moralizing Christian explanation. The origins of the widely disseminated bestiary go back to the so-called Physiologus, a natural history document from the 2nd century. This was repeatedly spread and appended over the centuries, e.g. the Etymologiae by Isidor de Sevilla from the 7th century, and has been translated into numerous languages. Since the 12th century, this simultaneously educational and entertaining genre has been widely disseminated and was particularly popular in England and northern France. The illustrations accompanying the text of the descriptions of nature and fantasy offered the illuminators the outstanding opportunity to present all of their ability. Thus were they able to fare into the most realistic depictions of the animal kingdom possible, while also being able to give their imaginations free reign in the depiction of three-headed monsters and similarly curious creatures.

Simple Images with Impressive Content

The bestiary, which resides today in the Library of the English Coronation Church, probably originated in York ca. 1275-90. It collects 164 fascinating miniatures on its 130 pages. Sometimes these take up an entire page, at others they are smaller and can be found on a page in greater numbers. Gorgeous, loving depictions of animals populate the pages of the manuscript. Sometimes these are very realistic, at others they are exceedingly fantastical. Whether a huge elephant, a mythical unicorn, a horde of apes, or a flock of birds that have been released from their cage: the artist of the miniatures created images of grandiose impact. These appear at first glance to be very simple and first unfold their effect upon closer inspection. Always depicted in slender frames before a monochromatic background, the miniatures enchant not only through their curious and realistic representations, but also with their luminous colorfulness. The back text is riddled with colorful initials and small ornamental elements in many places.

An Entertaining Picture Book for ‘Grownups’

The pictorial and symbolic presentation of the animal kingdom had no requirement for natural-scientific correctness, according to the perception of the Middle Ages. The spell of the bestiary does not come from its natural and theological design, but rather comes from the artfully and lovingly painted miniatures that supplement the text. These pictures of a huge whale, a fat porcupine, a three-headed dog, or a bizarre human-like creature fascinated the medieval beholder as much as the modern. The specimen from Westminster offers this fascination in exceptional artistic quality. It is not without reason that the Westminster Abbey Bestiary is considered to be one of the most beautiful specimens of this fascinating genre of medieval illumination.

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