Fantastic Beasts of the Middle Ages

Many of the imaginary beasts that populate the modern imagination—like unicorns, dragons, and griffins—appear in medieval manuscript illumination.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

Adam Naming the Animals (detail of illustration)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The Bestiary

A type of text known as the “bestiary” was one of the most important sources on animals from the Middle Ages. It was a kind of medieval encyclopedia that placed each creature within a Christian framework and conception of creation. 

Instead of discussing a creature’s habitat, diet, and physical characteristics, the bestiary often focused on the moral and spiritual lessons an animal could teach a Christian audience.

This image, from one of the Getty’s three medieval bestiaries, shows all the animals coming to be named by Adam (the first man, according to the Christian Bible).

Two Lions (about 1270) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Along with creatures medieval Europeans were familiar with—horses, dogs, foxes, and cows—the bestiary also described animals from faraway lands such as elephants, tigers, and as seen in this image, lions. These were also mixed together with beasts that we now know to be fantastical but which nevertheless captured the medieval imagination.

A Unicorn with its Head in the Lap of a Maiden (1277 or after) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Unicorn

One of the most recognizable fantastic beasts of the medieval bestiary is the unicorn. According to the bestiary text, the unicorn was a savage and wild beast whose horn was prized for its miraculous powers of healing and purification. The only way to capture it was to place a beautiful maiden alone in the woods, and the unicorn would come and willingly place its head in her lap. Then hidden hunters could then  surprise the creature and kill it.

The maiden gazes down at the defenseless unicorn with pity as a hunter relentlessly stabs it.

As the bestiary goes on to explain, the maiden is a symbol for the Virgin Mary, while the unicorn stands in for Christ. Only when Christ was made human in the Virgin’s womb did he become vulnerable to the fate of death.

The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn (from the Unicorn Tapestries) The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn (from the Unicorn Tapestries) (1495–1505)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The unicorn not only became one of the most recognizable symbols for Christ in religious works of art, but it also morphed into a secular motif associated with courtly love. Stately tapestries depicting unicorns are among the most prized and famed objects to survive from the Middle Ages, like this one from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and they often feature a young maiden alongside the noble creature or a hunt for its valuable horn.

A Phoenix (about 1270) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Phoenix

The phoenix, a magical bird that the bestiary text locates in either “India” or “Arabia” (both of which were known only to most medieval readers as abstract concepts standing in for “a land that was very far away”) was also among the most recognizable symbols for Christ in medieval Christian art.

According to the text, when the phoenix reaches an advanced age, it will set itself ablaze upon a funeral pyre and miraculously, a new phoenix will rise from the ashes of the old.

For medieval Christians, this was a powerful symbol for the miraculous resurrection of Christ, one of the central devotional tenets of their religious practice.

A Winged Dragon (1277 or after) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Dragon

Not all imaginary beasts in the bestiary carried such hopeful messages. Some had more sinister associations. The dragon was one such creature.

A Dragon (about 1270) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Medieval images of dragons are often quite colorful—artists were able to take some license with these fantastic beasts!

Though this illuminator has emphasized the wings of this dragon . . .

. . . the bestiary text discusses the dragon’s great strength, found in its fearsome tail.

A Dragon (about 1250 - 1260) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The dragon was said to hide along the paths where elephants walk, waiting to capture them by entwining their tails around their legs. For medieval Christians, this tale was seen as a moral story about the devil.

The dragon, symbolizing evil, could bring down even the mightiest of beasts, just as righteous men could be tempted to sin.

A Dragon Charging Two Doves (about 1270) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

A second story about dragons from the bestiary is that they are afraid of the shadow of a particular tree, known as the peridexion tree.

Doves stay safe by remaining in the tree’s shadow, avoiding the dragon who waits for them to leave, just as the devil waits for the unsuspecting Christian to leave the safety of the Church.

A Wild Boar; A Bonnacon (about 1250 - 1260) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Bonnacon

Not every bestiary story had a religious allegory attached to it—medieval readers enjoyed humor and entertainment in many of the same ways we do today.

The story of a little-known imaginary beast called the bonnacon can be seen in this image. According to the text, this bull-like creature had horns that curled in on themselves, leaving it unable to defend itself in the usual way.

Instead, the bonnacon was said to spray fiery dung at its pursuers, covering an area of up to three acres. This image shows a hunter receiving the full brunt of the bonnacon’s wrath, his face contorted from the undoubtedly overpowering smell!

A Siren and a Centaur (about 1270) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Imaginary creatures of all colors and sizes—the unicorn, phoenix, dragon, and bonnacon, among many others—took shape in medieval bestiaries and have captured the imaginations of medieval readers. In these images we can frequently find the seeds of the creatures that feature in movies, TV shows, video games, and other modern media—you probably know more about the medieval bestiary than you might have thought!

Credits: Story

© 2020 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

A version of this material was published in 2019 as the in-gallery text accompanying the exhibition "Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World", May 14–August 18, 2019, at the Getty Center.

To cite these texts, please use: "Fantastic Beasts of the Middle Ages," published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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