“The Unicorn in Captivity” from “The Unicorn Tapestries"/Courtesy of the Getty.

Medieval Bestiary Manuscripts Were So Punk, They Deserve Some Punking

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Finding our humanity — and some humor — in the ‘Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World’ exhibit now at the Getty Museum.

In an ambitious undertaking, the Getty Museum has brought together a collection of medieval art and bestiary manuscripts for the single-venue exhibition “Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World.”

The exhibit — which runs through August 18 — brings us an understanding of the popularity these images had in the medieval world. At first glance, the manuscript seems like an encyclopedia of animals, a record of their stories, anatomies and environments. Speaking with exhibit curator Elizabeth Morrison helped us understand their true purpose. She says the art was meant as an opportunity to reflect on our own stories, a lens through which humans could view their world.

For example, the symbolism of the unicorn, a dominant image in the collection, is a representation of the story of Christ; the animal stands for purity but is often portrayed impaled. The whale, believed to lay so still in the ocean it could be mistaken for an island, is often depicted alongside drowning sailors, and is meant to serve as a lesson to build your foundation on solid ground. With so much depth, the Book of Beasts evokes a feeling of timelessness.

“This is one of the most popular types of books in the medieval ages, and if people come [to the exhibit] they will find a modern connection with it,” Morrison says.

We’ve gotten a bit of a head start!

When you find your old diary and don’t want to burn it, but also don’t want to remember.

“The Peterborough Psalter and Bestiary”

Medieval scroll called “Trococite; A Headless Man with Eyes on His Shoulders; A Headless Man with a Face on His Chest; A Man with a Large Under Lip”

When you change for everyone you meet.

Trococite; A Headless Man with Eyes on His Shoulders; A Headless Man with a Face on His Chest; A Man with a Large Under Lip”


The medieval version of “Where’s Waldo?” is “Where’s the Allegory?”

Allegorical “Millefleurs” Tapestry with Animals

Frog and lemon and text

Welcome to my medieval blog. Here’s ‘How to brew chamomile tea’ in fancy writing.

Step 1: Find a frog that shows the size of the lemon (but not the flowers) to scale.

Step 2: Artfully include a bug flying above the frog. The frog, excited for its meal, will encourage you to be excited for your chamomile tea. Mmm, yum!

Step 3: Enjoy your tea! (Sorry I ran out of room because my letters are so big and fancy. I probably could have finished the recipe in the space I’m taking to write this.)

“Gillyflower, Insect, Germander, Almond, and Frog”

By Joris Hoefnagel and Georg Bocskay

Owl, fox and deer statue

“OK, who was in charge of the coat?”

“Sit, Stand, Kneel”

By Janet Macpherson


“So, this is what renting in Hollywood is like.”

“The Unicorn in Captivity” from “The Unicorn Tapestries”

Medieval scroll featuring a hybrid zebra and bird

“Bestiaire Fabuleux”

Panels featuring medieval activies

When your friend is wedding dress shopping and asks for your input, but all three dresses look the same.

Three Panels from a Casket with Scenes from Courtly Romances

Medieval art scroll with three birds and a fox

Me: Don’t stare at the sun

Also me: [stares at sun]

“Workshop Bestiary”

Medeval tapestry featuring war triumph

The tapestry 23andMe sends to let you know you’re white.

“Triumph of Fortitude” from The Triumph of the Seven Virtues series

Medieval rendering of Adam naming animals.

Adam naming the animals in the modern age: “You’ll be Coco. You’ll be Max. You’ll be Fluffer Nutter, ‘cause you’re a fluffy squirrel. You’ll be Otter because you’re a cute dog.”

“Adam Names the Animals” from the Aberdeen Bestiary

Medieval statue featuring an elephant with a a castle

“When it’s called fashion but spelled ‘inhumane.’”

Bronze candlestick in the shape of an elephant and castle

Medieval drawing featuring a boat with two people, large fish and two capsized passengers

“Whale, I knew we should have gone the other direction.”

“Now is not the time for puns! … I can SEA his underwear.”


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