This was a hard book to review, because it was so difficult to read – every time I picked it up I had difficulty moving past the glorious images – vibrant, curious and compelling – that required hours of browsing and musing. Even a non-specialist would find this one massively and persistently compelling.
It is intended as a catalogue for the exhibition this year at the John Paul Getty Museum of medieval bestiaries – an exhibition that will be an extraordinary cultural experience in itself. But it has been supported by a series of articles by leading scholars in the field, gathered here to provide latest thought in developing research in their (and closely related) field. So expect a series of images – wonderful images – specialist articles on both broader and tighter themes and detailed individual descriptions of the hundred plus pieces that will be on display.
The bestiaries have been gathered from leading collections around the world and this represents the largest gathering of its type ever undertaken. They cover the earliest to the latest, Latin to vernacular, and strictly religious to more secular. This allows their history to be tracked from pre-Christian origins to the very recent bestiary inspired art, with linkage to both Jewish and Islamic images.
There will be samples of all the beasts, both real and imagined, in glorious and somewhat unexpected colours – blue tigers are memorable! From exemplary drawings used to indicate each animal to later images that reflect a wider cultural background, court life, hunting, agriculture, and some decidedly determined cats. Each animal could symbolise a moral, morals, or allegorical tales. All beast types are covered. This catalogue carefully selects a range of first-rate images to illustrate both this aspect and the wider academic understandings of the pieces.
The articles reflect this understanding too – and it is an important volume in that respect as it allows the detailed examination of links between individual bestiaries, their possible place of creation and the transmission of ideas and designs. Bestiaries were developed as an educational tool for a religious context to inform on specific and detailed Christian morals and beliefs – each, at least, an impactful aide memoir, at greatest, a route to deeper spiritual thought and understanding. The academic review could be considered enough in itself, but even for a non-specialist it allows one to think through exactly what one is looking at – and take time to focus on the individual images – which, it must be remembered, are some of the great glories of medieval art, culture and creativity.
Another whole sub-set of the display and volume is the same beasts and presentations in their wider usage across a huge range of other items, all of them intriguing in their own right – books, architecture, glass, metalwork, embroideries, jewellery and caskets among others. Thus creating a window on aspects of the medieval past – lived at least by the wealthy.
The exhibition will no doubt be a wonderful experience for visitors – regretfully not including me – but the catalogue is another window of opportunity, albeit in a different dimension and with the option of a different timescale and perspective, to view and understand the pieces. Not just as art pieces but as cultural jewels and spiritual aids. What a brilliant book.
Hilary White 5/4
Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World edited by Elizabeth Morrison
Yale University Press 9781606065907 hbk Jun 2019