In the past, when vast tracts of the world were yet to be explored, stories of fantastic creatures abounded in histories and travellers’ tales. Many of these creatures and the myths that surrounded them became part of common belief and storytelling, and still exist as the basis of our collective fantasy-world. The British Library is home to some of the extraordinary manuscripts, such as the medieval bestiaries, that contain original paintings and descriptions of these creatures. The murals are the artist’s interpretation of some of these images and stories, summoned from the pages of manuscripts and woven into a visionary narrative.
The Basement Mural: Monstrous sources of pigments in Medieval manuscripts
‘Dragonsblood’ is a real pigment that comes from the resin of Dracaena Cinnabari, an outlandish tree that grows on the island of Socotra. But medieval philosophers perpetuated the story that the rich red substance came from the mingled blood of the dragon and the elephant that soaked the earth as they battled to the death: ‘And at the last after long fighting the elephant waxeth feeble for great blindness, in so much that he falleth upon the dragon, and slayeth in his dying the dragon that him slayeth.’ *
Gold was an important component of medieval manuscript art. One of its sources was believed to be in the northern deserts of India, where, according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus there was found ‘a kind of ant of great size – bigger than a fox, though not as big as a dog....These creatures as they burrow underground throw up the sand in heaps...The sand has a rich content of gold’. Warriors collected the sand, but the ants ‘smell them and at once give chase; nothing in the world can touch these ants for speed, so not one of the Indians would get home alive, if they did not make sure of a good start while the ants were mustering their forces’.**
The first floor roundel: The dragon and the Perindens tree.
A medieval bestiary in the British Library (Harley 3244) includes the story of the exotic Peridens tree. The perindens tree grows in India and doves flock to live among its branches, feeding upon its sweet fruit. The dragon, enemy of the doves, fears the tree and its shadow, but if any dove leaves the tree and its shade, the dragon lies in wait to catch it. The text warns that anyone who abandons the Christian Church in like manner will be caught and devoured by the devil.
* Quotation from Daniel V. Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting. (1956), citing the medieval writer Bartholemew Anglicus.
**Quotation from Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Selincourst. (1954)