Bestiaries are books containing descriptions of birds and beasts both real and fantastical, to which Christian moral and allegorical interpretations are applied.
A bestiary, therefore, is a religious text, particularly popular during the Middle Ages. Several beautifully illustrated copies have survived from the 12th and 13th centuries.
This Latin bestiary was written and illuminated in England at the end of the 12th century. It is closely related to a slightly earlier book which belonged to Worksop Priory in Nottinghamshire and is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
On the left-hand page, shown here, is a Leucrota, a composite animal said to originate from India. Here it is shown as the size of a donkey, with the hindquarters of a stag and the chest and legs of a lion. The animal also has cloven hooves, the head of a horse and a wide mouth with a large unbroken bone instead of teeth. On the right is an eagle, whose wonderful eyesight enables it to hunt fish from a great height. When its eyes grow dim from old age, it flies into the circle of the sun to clear them and to restore its wings, after which it plunges into the water to restore its youth.
In medieval allegory, the eagle can represent Christ, who catches souls as the eagle catches fish.
To see more of the Medieval bestiary please go to our award winning Turning the Pages™.
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- British Library
Wonder at these amazing hand-painted books of past ages and marvel at the vibrant colours used – these are works of art that were made for kings and queens, monasteries, bishops and counts.