Fantastic Beasts of a Medieval manuscriptsOn March 8, 2017 by Yelena
This year the British Library will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
with exhibition “A History of Magic”.
The exhibition will be structured around subjects from Hogwarts: from Potions and Alchemy, to Care of Magical Creatures.
A History of Magic will open 20 October 2017, and run to 28 February 2018.
Being a huge fan of J.K.Rowling universe Visual Zen Blog cannot miss this opportunity. We feel inspired by the up-coming event
and decided to dedicate a special post about incredibly inspiring Fantastic Beasts on pages of Medieval manuscripts called The Bestiaries.
The Bestiary as a genre of colourfully illustrated Medieval Manuscript was developed in medieval Europe in the twelfth century.
It held a prominent place in popular folklore, influenced visual narration and culture in general.
Among most famous manuscripts are Ashmole Bestiary ( is a late 12th or early 13th century English illuminated manuscript ).
and The Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library, Univ Lib. MS 24) is a 12th-century English illuminated manuscript bestiary
that was first listed in 1542 in the inventory of the Old Royal Library at the Palace of Westminster.
The word ‘bestiary’ derives from the Latin word “bestia” which translates as ‘animal’. In the 7th century, Isidore of Seville
a scholar and, for over three decades, Archbishop of Seville wrote his famous Etymologies, a memorable reference work which functioned
much like a contemporary encyclopedic source. The Etymologies was the most used textbook throughout the Middle Ages and described also
the real animals, supernatural creatures and mythological hybrids. In a chapter entitled De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’), Isidore depicted plenty of ‘beasts’ and their habits.
Real and Fantastic Beasts occupied an important place in art of Middle Ages.
Medieval artists and scolars were obsessed with imaginary beasts and created the world of symbolism and allegory.
They employed animal motifs from Bible and from prechristian mythology and mythological
creatures of ancient Greece, Rome , Egypt and East.
At that historical time animals as a base of agricultural society played an essential role in almost every facet of human existence.
Medieval artists used them as a moral instructions and as allegories of the trials of human life.
A pilgrimage and Crusades added a new depictions of an exotic animals. They were imagined to be the fantastic
inhabitants of distant lands. Exotic beasts were sometimes sent as a gifts to European monarchs or brought back as a treasure from a Crusades.
According to a chronicles the king Henry I of England ( XII Century ) maintained a small zoo of lions, leopards and camels.
Charles V of the House of Valois called the Wise kept a lions (at today’s Porte des Lions which is an entrance to Louvre).
Here we are juxtaposing some of the memorable creatures and sharing our endless fascination by imagination of Medieval artists.
Those half-human and half-horse figures, were frequently depicted in medieval manuscripts. This image came from Greek mythology.
The most common theory holds that the idea of centaurs came from the first reaction of a non-riding cultures on horse riding invaders.
Horse taming and horseback culture arose first in the southern steppe grasslands of Central Asia, perhaps approximately in modern Kazakhstan.
Greek writers described the Lapith tribe of Thessaly as the inventors of horse-back riding. The Thessalian horseriders also believed their
horse breeds were descended from the centaurs.
Like satyrs, centaurs were notoriously wild, hedonistic, agressive and generally uncultured creatures.
Only one of them named Chiron who was a mentor of hero Achilles was known as a highly intelligent and kind being.
Centaurs considered dangerous and symbolised a demonic forces in Medieval Europe.
You never meet Unicorns in Greek mythology but a legendary creature that has been described as a horse or goat-like
animal with a single large, pointed horn, the unicorn was mentioned by various writers and philosophers of antiquity,
including Ctesias, Pliny the Younger, and Aelian as a real animal. Aristotle mentioned a unicorn creature as animal
from India. And he also wrote for the first time about a unicorn’s horn ( used as a drinking mug )as a antidote
against any poison. An earliest images of unicorns were created in India 4 thousands years ago. The images of animals
one-horned antilopes were found in Egypt.
The Bible also feature an one-horned animal, the re’em, which some versions translate as unicorn.
Probably Julius Ceaser was the first one who mentioned a unicorn as creature who was seen by him personally
in Europe, in a forest of Hercynian which is now a territory of Southern Germany.
In a European folklore of Middle Ages unicorn described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity
and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin who represented a Virgin Mary. Unicorn also featured in
The King Arthur’s adventures.
Reptiles and Amphibians : Basilisks, Salamanders, Dragons and Oroboros
The earliest accounts of Basilisk comes from Natural History written by Pliny the Elder ( 79 AD ).
According to a legend this gigantic reptile ( or cock with serpent tail )is a king of the serpents.
The monstrous creature hatched by cockerel from the egg of serpent or toad.
Basilisk is famous for his killing gaze. Some stories claim the creature can kill by sound of hissing.
Basilisk is also linked to alchemistry and according to some sources can convert silver into gold.
Leonardo da Vinci sketched and described Basilisk in his famous notebooks. The king of serpents also mentioned
in Shakespear’s play Richard III.
The salamander commonly is illustrated as an amphibian creature in or moving through a fire and described as extremely cold beast.
It can live unharmed in flame and appear with a rain.
Salamanders can extinguish fire with frigidity of their bodies and if salamander enter a hot water the water become cold.
They are firstly mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History and he even made an important distinction
between salamanders and lizards, which are similar in shape but different in other characteristics.
Interesting to note that salamanders were classified as amphibians and lizards as reptiles only nowadays.
As allegory salamader is represents a righteous people who like biblical figure Daniel could emerge unharmed from fiery
furnace. In alchemistry salamander symbolised so called prima materia – original material of the universe.
Described by many scolars of antiquity as a the largest serpent, Dragon is very common beast in mythology of many cultures around
the world. European dragons usually originated from Balkans. This mythology also related to Western Asian cultural heritage.
The word “Dragon” appeared in English language in XIII century from Old French “dragon” which derived from Greek ” Drakontos” which
originally mean “huge serpent” or “giant seafish”. Very popular image of winged two-footed dragon with tail and wings called Wyvern
As a allegory dragon in medieval Christian tradition often assotiated with Devil and paganism.
Dragon is a common guardian creature as well often used in heraldic coats of arms.
The alchemical dragon represents the philosophical quick silver.
Oroboros is an ancient symbol of reptile eating its own tail. It appeared firstly in one of the oldest written narrations of the world
The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld, an Egyptian funerary text. It represents the nature’s endless creation and
destruction cycle, life and death and world’s periodic renewal. Oroboros was one of the well-known talismans in Roman times.
Its depiction could be interpreted as the Western equivalent of the Asian Yin-Yang symbol.
In Medieval Europe the Oroboros become an important and common Alchemical symbol.
Griffin ( Griphon )
This is a very old and well-known mythological hybrid. The creature with a body ,tail and legs of a lion and head and
wings of an eagle.
The oldest griffin-like beasts depictions appear in Anatolia, Syria and Levant in the Middle Bronze Age.
This creature and also a relative mysterious Sphynx came from Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Like many others Griffin is also a guardian animal.
The look-alike legendary Hippogriff which has a front half of giantic eagle and the hind half of a horse was firstly depicted
by Latin poet Virgil in his Eclogues. But we don’t see Hippogriffs in Medieval Bestiaries and the word Hippogriff itself came to English
language only in the beginning of XVII century.
Phoenix was a supernatural bird from ancient Greek tradition who has an ability to reborn. Associated with the Sun, the phoenix dies in flames
and later reborn from the ashes. Some sources tells the legendary bird could live
1,400 years before rebirth. The sacred Egyptian Bennu Bird ( depicted as heron ) as a symbol of immortality has strong similarity with Phoenix.
These stories were many times featured by medieval scolars and illustrated by artists who used the Phoenix as an allegory for the death and
resurrection of Christ. It was a symbol and promise of eternal life.
In ancient Greece and Rome the word Phoenix was associated with the similar-sounding Phoenicia, a civilization
famous for its production of purple dye from sea shells. Because the costly purple pigment from Phoenicia was
associated with the upper classes in antiquity and, later, with royalty, in the medieval period the phoenix was
considered “the royal bird”. The phoenix was also compared the late Roman Empire as a symbol of the Eternal City.