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Beasts

Animals in the medieval art of the MEV

Medieval art is full of animals. Alone or accompanied by other animals or humans; in isolated scenes or as part of wider stories; perfectly drawn, deformed or fitted into a pre-established space in order to decorate it…, what are so many beasts doing on capitals, altarpieces and objects of all kinds? What do they mean? And how can we decipher it?

The art of the Middle Ages used animals to express visions of the world and of human existence strongly marked by Christianity, but at the same time rooted in traditions prior to and outside of Christianity. The numerous beasts that appear in medieval works of art, therefore, cannot be interpreted in a rigid way, but keeping in mind a variety of motivations and contexts.

Based on the wealth of the MEV’s collections, this exhibition illustrates different aspects, modalities and intentions of the abundant presence of animals in medieval art, bringing us closer to the way of thinking and living of men and women of the Middle Ages.

EXHIBITION DATES

March 30th 2023 – March 31th 2024

 

PLACE

MEV, Museu d’Art Medieval

 

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All the exhibitions

Exhibition

1. From the scarab to the pegasus. Animals and art, an ancient relationship

Animals have always coexisted with humans, who have treated them as potential enemies or as companions, as a source of food or as labor force. Their forms and behaviors were immediately associated with character traits or supernatural forces, easily applicable to individuals, families, social groups, or deities. Also the myths that explained the universe often included real or imaginary animals. For all these reasons, the beasts were already present in many artistic creations of Mediterranean Antiquity.

Escarabeu egipci
Heart scarab

Egypt, 18th-19th dynasties (16th-12th c. BC). Sculpted, polished and carved black granite
MEV 3022

Enochous with humans and animals

West Central Italy (Etruscan culture), ca. 530-520 BC. Black figure pottery
MEV 17244

Fragment of sarcophagus cover with a sea bull

Roman Empire, second half of the 2nd c. AD. Carved Luni marble
MEV 3217

2. The lamb of God and the dragon of Satan. Animals in medieval Christian culture

Medieval Christian culture separated animals according to their religious and moral significance into two opposing groups: positive and negative beasts, which represented the dualism between good and evil. Thus, an animal could symbolize Christ or Satan, but at the same time goodness and faith or evil and heresy, providing examples of human behavior. However, depending on the authors, the same animal could be described as positive or negative, like the lion.

plafo baldaqui romanic MEV
Panel of a canopy

Val d'Aran or bishopric of Comminges, last quarter of the 13th c. Tempera on wood
MEV 4120

Ceiling seal with a dragon

Catalonia, 14th-15th c. Tempera on wood
MEV 5997

Compartment of the altarpiece of Santa Margarita de Montbui: the temptations of Saint Anthony

Lluís Borrassà (ca. 1360-1425) or Mateu Ortoneda (active between 1391 and 1433)
Barcelona, first third of the 15th c. Tempera on wood
MEV 788

2.1. The beasts of the saints

In hagiographic stories beasts often appear: the saint fights them, helps them, trains them, receives some sign from them or involves them in miracles. This literary genre began with the stories of the Desert Fathers and culminated around 1260 with the Golden Legend of the Dominican Jacopo da Varazze. Some of these beasts became very popular, such as Saint George’s dragon, Saint Anthony’s little pig or Saint Mark’s lion.

Altar frontal of Santa Margarida de Vilaseca

Vic workshop, last quarter of the 12th. Tempera on oak wood
MEV 5

2.2. The Bestiary, the book of beasts

The text of the Bestiaries discusses the physical appearance and behavior of different animals mainly in symbolic and religious terms. Halfway between natural history and a moral treatise, this genre has its origins in classical culture and in writings from the first centuries of Christianity. There were bestiaries in almost every medieval library, in one or another of the versions written in Latin or in vernacular languages. The volumes could only contain the text or be luxuriously illustrated. For both preachers and artists, they were leading works when it came to understanding, explaining and representing animals and proposing them as examples to the men and women of the time.

INTERACTIVE bestiarY

This interactive bestiary contains a selection of twenty-one animals explained according to their moral allegories.
The illustrations come from four of the most lavishly illuminated Bestiaries of the Middle Ages.

3. Whoever has a horse does not travel on foot. Animals and social representation

Although their symbolism derives from the Christian imaginary, animals were used at the same time in a multitude of works of art created for profane spheres. Equestrian or hunting themes, with ancient roots, were especially valued in an aristocratic context. Animals also served as an excuse for social criticism or as symbols of courtly love. For all these reasons, it is not strange that beasts are frequently found on heraldic shields.

Compartment of the altarpiece of Saint Andrew of Gurb: the saint dragged by a horse

Lluís Borrassà (ca. 1360-1425)
Barcelona, 1415-1418. Tempera on wood
MEV 4524

Relief: coat of arms with a deer

Catalonia, first half of 15th c. limestone
MEV 10661

Panel of a painted ceiling

Castile (Valladolid or Burgos), 1386-1410. Tempera on wood
MEV 12299

4. Beastly forms. Between reality and fiction

In its beginnings, medieval art was distinguished by its more conceptual than sensorial orientation. As for animals, the result was a schematic and stylized visual code, as seen in heraldry. Its limitations, evident above all when it came to representing exotic beasts, allowed at the same time to create conventional images of fantastic animals such as unicorns, dragons or mermaids, never seen but well described in bestiaries. Monsters had a great presence in medieval culture and their deformity was used to express disorder, a moral trait associated with Evil and the Devil. Towards the end of the period, the growing interest in nature not only relativized the existence of these monstrous beasts, but also returned to the generalization of a naturalistic aesthetic.

Central panel of the altarpiece of Sant Miquel de Verdú

The devil vanquished by Saint Michael is here a monstrous hybrid with snake eyes, feline ears, a fox's tail, and bird's feet. Even the human limbs are negative: sagging breasts, a Turk's mustache, a second face on the belly. In contrast to the elegant archangel, the scene presents the two extremes towards which human nature can tend.
Joan de Rua (documented between 1493 and 1502)
Catalonia (Montblanc?), 1483-1484. Tempera on wood
MEV 1768

Panel of a painted ceiling

Castile or Aragon, late 13th or early 14th c. Tempera on wood
MEV 6008

4.1. Hic sunt dracones. The beasts from the ends of the world

In the medieval imagination, the mermaid and the unicorn were as real as the elephant and the crocodile. It was believed that these fabulous animals lived in the Orient, a distant, unknown and disturbing territory, as explained in travel books and shown on medieval world maps. Dragons and all kinds of monstrous creatures inhabited the edges of the world, frightening and at the same time fascinating women and men of the Middle Ages.

hic sunt DRAGONES

Credits: Marc Mallafré

5. Animals that talk? In search of meanings

What does an animal mean within a specific medieval work of art? Despite containing clear definitions, often the simple use of Bestiaries does not allow us to find out for sure, because different authors could give different readings to the same beast. In addition, in the medieval world, images were not perceived in exactly the same way as they are today: the reiteration of an animal in a fabric did not completely deprive it of meaning, nor did its situation alone in the middle of a capital or a painting give it a strong and revealing sense of deep realities.

The precise chronological and historical context of a work of art, the reasons for its creation, its constituent materials, the use to which it was put, its position in space or the other pieces with which it perhaps formed a set are determining factors when trying to find out possible meanings of the beasts that decorate it.

Capital with dragons

Vic (Vic-Ripoll workshop), second half of 12th c. Limestone
MEV 10824

Volute of a crosier

Limoges, 13th c. Cast, chiseled and enameled copper
MEV 8032

Canopy beam from Tost

Workshops of the Seu d'Urgell, around 1220. Tempera and stucco with gilding on wood
MEV 5166

6. The beasts are alive!

The reasons that explain the popularity of animals in medieval culture have remained alive to this day. The association with traits of the human character, the fascination for exoticism, the need to give free rein to fantasy, irony or social criticism, or the desire to re-enact the eternal combat between good and evil, are principles always in force in art and literature, in cinema and in videogames. From Moby Dick, through Harry Potter and even the festive and popular Catalan bestiary, animals keep accompaning and inspiring us.

MOSAIC

Mosaic: The Hobbit, Gremlins, Harry Potter, Moby Dick, Animal Farm, Asterix and the Griffin

Works of art

grid

Escarabeu egipci

1

2

3

4

5

6

plafo baldaqui romanic MEV

7

8

9

Boget amb un drac pintura al tremp sobre fusta MEV 5997

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

Multimedia

Hic sunt dracones

Audio guide

Presentation

Join the MEV team to visit “Beasts. Animals in medieval art of the MEV»!

 

Throughout the exhibition you will find an audio symbol with its number to play.

01. Section: From the scarab to the pegasus. Animals and art, an ancient relationship

Listen

Since long before the Middle Ages, animals have had a very important presence in the artistic creations of ancient cultures.

02. Heart Scarab

Listen

03. Fragment of sarcophagus with a sea bull

Listen

04. Section: The Lamb of God and the dragon of Satan. Animals in medieval Christian culture

Listen

Christian culture also attributed meanings to animals and, in general terms, classified them into two groups: positive and negative.

05. Panel of a canopy

Listen

06. Ceiling seal with a dragon

Listen
Boget amb un drac pintura al tremp sobre fusta MEV 5997

07. Side panel of the altarpiece of Santa Margarida de Montbui: temptations of Saint Anthony

Listen

08. Altar frontal of Santa Margarita de Vilaseca

Listen

09. Fragments of a bestiary in Catalan (Arxiu i Biblioteca Episcopal de Vic)

Listen

10. Section: Who has a horse does not go on foot. Animals and social representation

Listen

Although its symbolism derives from the Christian imaginary, in the Middle Ages the images of animals were also widely used in profane spheres.

11. Side panel of the altarpiece of Sant Andreu de Gurb

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12. Panel of a painted ceiling

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13. Funerary relief: coat of arms with a deer

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14. Bestial forms. Between reality and fiction

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The non-naturalistic tendency with which medieval art was born conditioned the images of animals, but it also served to represent monsters or exotic beasts, never seen by most of the people.

15. Central panel of the altarpiece of Sant Miquel de Verdú

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El diable vençut per Sant Miquel

16. Panel of a painted ceiling

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17. Madonna with Child

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18. Section: Speaking animals? in search of meanings

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What significance did the representations of animals have in medieval art? Beyond what the bestiaries say, to find out it is necessary to know the specific context of each work of art.

19. Beam of the Tost canopy

Listen

20. Head of a crozier

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Llemotges, segle XIII

21. Capital with dragons

Listen

22. Section: The beasts are alive!

Listen

In some ways, today’s visual culture is not so different from the medieval one: animals continue to play a large role in it, from literature and cinema to the festive popular bestiary.

23. Fabric of the Eagles

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Credits

The audio guide has been recorded by Judit Verdaguer and Marc Sureda, curators of the exhibition and curators of the MEV, and by Oriol Montero, representing the Museum’s educational team, at the MediaLab of the Pilarín Bayés Library.

Resources for the visit
Resources for the visit
Audio guIDE

Join the MEV team to visit “Beasts. Animals in medieval art of the MEV»!

 

Throughout the exhibition you will find an audio symbol with its number to play.

 

PUBLICATION

Book ‘Bèsties’ based on the exhibition (Catalan edition)

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