Visual Arts Directory
Visual Arts - Review Directory

Animals, both real and fantastic, occupied an important place in medieval art and thought. Artists readily employed animal motifs, along with foliate designs, as part of their decorative vocabulary. Early medieval jewelry, for instance, abounds with animal forms elongated and twisted into intricate patterns Box Brooch. Animal forms might be employed to imbue utilitarian objects with majesty or even humor.

Animals also carried a rich variety of symbolic associations often drawn from the past. The lamb served as an important sacrificial animal in ancient Near Eastern religious rites, including those of the Israelites. Christians adopted the lamb as a symbol of Christ, emphasizing his sacrifice for humanity. The griffin, regarded in antiquity as an attendant of Apollo and a keeper of light, retained its role as a guardian figure for the dead even in later Christian contexts. Christians looked to the Bible for much of their animal symbolism. John the Baptist's description of the Holy Spirit as "like a dove from heaven" (John 1:32) offered a ready image. Doves crafted out of precious materials could be found suspended above the altar in both Byzantine and Western churches. By the fifth century, the four winged beasts described in Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation were firmly associated with the four writers of the Gospels and thereafter became a standard feature in the decoration of luxury gospel books. In calendars, animals, as zodiacal symbols and as participants in seasonal activities, provided a visual shorthand for the months of the year.

Animals also served as vehicles for religious allegory and moral instruction. The Bestiary was a collection of descriptions and interpretations of animals, intended as both a natural history and a series of moral and religious lessons. It was widely read in the Middle Ages and served as a source for artistic invention. In addition to providing intriguing interpretations of animals, bestiaries offered tales about the existence of bizarre and loathsome creatures, many of which appeared in medieval art. The basilisk, for example, which was equated with the devil, could kill by its very smell, by a glance, or even by the sound of its hissing. The manticore, with the face of a man, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion, possessed a seductive voice likened to the sound of a fine flute. It represented the siren song of temptation that surrounded the Christian soul on its perilous journey through an earthly existence.