My Medieval Bestiary creatures are still bringing smiles as I pick and choose what to draw. I found myself a little short on time the first part of the week so was looking for relatively easy images that could be quickly sketched and not slow me down with a lot of detail and colors. Everything on this page was done with a fountain pen containing a dark brown ink. What little color I used was from a brush pen. This grouping is also a reminder that not all medieval illuminated manuscripts were religious, so not all of these creatures have those kinds of links. The porcupine, for instance (and not to be confused with the hedgehog which does show up in the Bible), was most likely included in illuminations (and quite realistically) because it was common in Italy and often included in princely and royal menageries which could provide living models for artists. Marco Polo also describes a porcupine hunt while on his travels. Because of the way porcupines would roll into a ball, leaving attackers with quills lodged in them, Louis XII of France took them as his symbol with the motto "He who touches me pricks himself." The image of the porcupine became oft used on many objects commissioned by the King.
Dogs like the one I chose also seem quite common in this period, a slender greyhound involved in a hunt. The text notes that in general "[dogs] accompanied humans everywhere, keeping them company, guaranteeing their security, and assisting in every kind of hunt . . . Illuminated manuscripts offer ample testimony of this omnipresence, for they are teeming with dogs." In fact, there were different breeds for different kinds of hunts just like today, and the greyhound with its speed was best at fatiguing the prey during the royal hunt. Mine was in the midst of a bird hunt.
The crane, it turns out, held the same appeal for middle ages illuminators as this one did for me: its grace and elegance. They were domesticated in the 13th & 14th centuries to be used to embellish gardens, much like the peacock. Illuminators regularly used crane motifs to decorate initials and in the margins of manuscripts. Any symbolism attached to the crane is usually positive, commonly the quality of vigilance as exhibited by their habit of having a lookout at night that holds a stone in an upraised foot which wakes it up with the noise of its fall if it dozes off. This behavior was also incorporated into a religious allegory with Christ as the stone and the mind as the foot. It gets quite complicated as these often do during this time period. These birds were also regularly used "to symbolize the regular monks and nuns who lived by the precepts of precise order . . . because cranes were observed to fly in formation" and the crane at the head of the v formation "offered a perfect image for the heads of religious communities who encouraged the other members under their authority by their example and their preaching." There's much more about cranes in legends and fables which can be found in this Wikipedia entry. They were one popular bird throughout history.
As for this unicorn, how adorable is he? It looks nothing like how I usually have seen mythical unicorns depicted, short of that horn. Almost more of a sheep than a horse which is usually the basis of a unicorn. This one shows up in the illumination of the Parable of the Unicorn and the Two Rats where the unicorn is actually a bad actor representing "the figure of death, who pursues man ceaselessly and longs to take him." Well, not so adorable after all! The more well known symbolism for the unicorn is just the opposite: purity and grace. The biblical allegory includes a virgin as Mary and the unicorn as Christ and is all sweetness and light.
Towards the end of the week I had a little more time to devote to each sketch and chose these that fit the same color scheme. Still using the brown ink fountain pen, these are additionally highlighted with brush pens in sepia, blue and light grey and the occasional micron pigma pen. The last one also has white gel pen on the tail. I'm obviously drawn to quirkiness and that particular Ibex struck me as quirky indeed. In fact, the text says that it is usually depicted similarly to real-world ibexes, head down with horns digging into the ground, unlike mine. The Ibex was thought to be able to break a fall with those powerful horns as well as run them through any human threat, and that it preferred altitude, climbing so high that they become invisible to the human eye. The bestiaries interpreted the ibex as "a figure for enlightened Christians capable of blending the two biblical Testaments into a salutary harmony with which to overcome adversity" while our friend Rabanus Maurus makes it "an image of the salvation of the flesh through the teaching of the two Testaments." Okay . . . not sure I see that but apparently it was the common understanding.
The only thing quirky about the Nycticorax is that hooked beak which gives it a rather stern visage, and that name which I am totally unfamiliar with. Often grouped with owls because both are nocturnal and have similar attributes, the nycticorax is smaller and is not depicted with small ear-like protrusions in medieval imagery like the owl is. However, both owl and nycticorax, like most nocturnal animals, "did not enjoy a good reputation in the middle ages." The nycticorax became "interpreted as a figure for medieval Jews . . . [who] were reproached for having condemned Christ despite his having come to save them, and thus for preferring darkness to the light of the Savior, who then turned toward gentiles." No wonder mine looks so grumpy with people thinking THAT about it! However, if one is drawn with a mouse in its beak, that represents a faction that viewed it positively for its ability to clear barns of rodents.
Lastly, if you had asked me if I planned to sketch any serpents, I'm sure I would have said no. I have an aversion to snakes of any kind, even if only in a photo, and to me, a serpent is a snake. But here I was looking at a double page spread containing the weirdest legged creatures, the one I chose being the least weird of them, and almost as adorable as that unicorn. It was indeed a surprise to read the caption and discover these were serpents! The text confirmed why the majority of the serpents looked so nasty and weird, stating that "the serpent was one of the most widespread symbols of evil in medieval iconography" pointing back to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. But since that story doesn't give much of a description, a generic form derived from Greco-Roman mythology ended up in these bestiaries. Generally speaking, serpents had a body of a reptile, the paws of a lion (although usually two rather than four), the head of a dog or a wild animal, and often but not always, leathery or feathered wings, this last one giving us what we think of as dragons (which are related but separate). My serpent sure fits the description sans the wings. I was wondering what the deal was with those fat feet!
As always, clicking on the photos will provide a larger view to study.