Friday, May 8, 2015

More Animal Categories: Allegorical, Scientific, and Marginal Art

            In his lengthy enumeration of depictions of elephants in medieval manuscripts in "The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art", G.C. Druce offers his own opinions on the artistic abilities of each artist, saying such comments as “[This] is a realistic picture” or “The elephant is like a pig,” and even that one “[displays] the artists’ disregard for natural coloring.”[1]  In doing so, Druce slips into the all too inviting trap of assuming that every medieval illuminator or artist attempted to make their art as realistic as possible; some just had more skill than others. He does not, as Nora Flores does in "The Mirror of Nature Distorted", recognize that there may in fact be multiple purposes for depicting animals. Flores divides medieval animal art into two categories: “allegorical” and “scientific.”[2] I would venture to add a third category, that of marginalia, which often bridges the gap between allegorical and scientific and adds a complication to our desired, neat categorical division.

            The “allegorical” depiction of animals derives, according to Flores, from the belief that each animal reflected something about the nature of God or of humans. The life cycle of the elephant, for example, was held to be an allegory of the Fall of Man. When the female elephant is ready to mate, she tempts the male with a mandrake, as Eve tempted Adam. When she gives birth, her mate must guard her from dragons, symbolic of the snake that tempted Eve. Typically, the moral lessons one should learn from the animals dictated how they were drawn in bestiaries; in some cases, “authority rather than reality direct[ed] their composition.”[3] If ancient authors, such as the author of the Physiologus, made a claim about a certain, creature, it would likely be repeated by later authors, even if later observation of the animal proved such a statement false. For example, it was commonly held that elephants lacked knees, and when they leaned against a tree to sleep, the tree could be partially cut and broken by the elephant’s weight, and the elephant successfully captured. Even as knowledge of elephant joints spread, it is likely that some artists chose to keep their drawn elephants jointless to match the description of how an elephant could be hunted. As Bridgette Resl, in "Beyond the Ark: Animals in Medieval Art," writes, “What mattered first and foremost, therefore, was ease of recognition. In such a context it was more important for the subject to look typical than realistic.”[4]

            The “scientific” category of animal art is less straight-forward than “allegorical” art. Flores claims, “By the mid-thirteenth century, artists were also looking more critically at nature and using it more often as a model for their creations.”[5] We see this most clearly in the elephant allegedly drawn from life by Matthew Paris, who saw the elephant presented to Henry III for his menagerie. Paris gets the placement of the knee correct, has a very natural-looking trunk, and even places the tusks in the upper jaw rather than the lower (a flaw Druce is rather fond of point out). But then again, of course Paris’ sketch looks more natural than other illuminations; he actually saw an elephant with his own eyes! But this does not mean that a realistic elephant, or any realistic creature for that matter, suddenly lost its symbolic meaning. We are reminded of the 17th-century paintings of birds in a park, a scene that is entirely realistic, but perhaps has no meaning without an understanding of the symbolism associated with each type of bird. Flores, then, goes too far with her assertion that the “scientific” overtook the “allegorical” from the 15th century on. As I have already mentioned, it was sometimes necessary for the allegorical purpose of an animal to be clearer to a viewer than the animal’s actual appearance.
            Then there is the question of marginalia. Are these drawings outside of the text still related to the text? If not, what is their purpose, especially the incredibly naturalistic marginalia of the Annunciation in the Hastings Hours? H.W. Janson, in his chapter on marginalia in Apes and Ape Lore, gives a number of examples of apes in the margins of manuscripts in order to discuss specific tropes of apes in art; in those images he chose to print with the chapter, the images are unfortunately separated from their larger context on the page. For the sake of argument, let us assume they are not easily connected to the text with which they appear. Janson goes too far in stating at the beginning of his chapter “The Ape in Gothic Marginal Art” that marginalia “have no illustrative function.”[6] I would propose that marginalia help bridge the gap between allegory and science that we seem so desirous of creating. Searching for symbolism in each marginal creature can often prove fruitless; as one student said in class regarding a particular manuscript page, “I can explain the ape but not the man with the crossbow.” When no symbolism can be found, what prevents us from assuming this is the illuminator’s chance to work on their ability to draw from nature? The Luttrell Psalter artist who drew an ape holding an owl on the back of a goat (MS 42130, f.38r)[7] may not have had the chance to see an ape in person, but their owl is fairly naturalistic. If the typical meaning of ape and owl does not apply to the accompanying text, then who is to say that the illuminator included it simply because they were talented at drawing the owls they had observed around their monastery? One could even come up with a scenario of the Hastings Hours illuminator, tired of drawing only Biblical scenes they feel no connection to and yearning to draw the butterflies they see in the cloister every day. Of course, the anonymity of these artists is more of a hindrance than help in explaining the exact purpose of marginalia. But I think it is safe to assume that marginalia fall somewhere in the middle of Flores’ “allegorical” and “scientific” categories, and therefore show to us that the division between the two is not as distinct as, for ease of comprehension, we would wish them to be. 


[1] Druce, 35, 42.
[2] Flores, 5.
[3] Ibid,, 27.
[4] Resl, 191-192.
[5] Flores, 10.
[6] Janson, 163.
[7] Ibid., Plate XXIIId.


  1. Nice effort to tease out the distinctions that our scholarship has tended to draw between "allegorical," "scientific," and marginal depictions of animals. Are you suggesting with your example from the Luttrell psalter that the illustrator meant all three animals (the ape, goat, and owl) to be both meaningful and "realistically" represented, but that he did better (in terms of "realism") with the owl because he had seen owls? Perhaps he simply had a better model for the owl (cf. Villehard de Honnecourt's sketchbook lion, "drawn from life"). I would have liked to hear more, as well, about your understanding of allegory: I tried to suggest in class that, in fact, all European Christian art, including the most "realistic" can be understood in some sense as "allegorical," given the Christian claim that all the animals were creatures made by God: the more "realistically" one represents them, the more meaningful they become as signs of the Creator's making. Indeed, the whole impulse in Western art towards "photorealism" can be read as a response to this desire to show God's working in creation. Discuss! RFLB

  2. In reading this post, it occurred to me that human artists (and viewers/readers) continue to have complex relationships with depictions of animals we have never seen. While it could be argued that the mediation of film brings us into an illusory closeness with creatures many of us will never see in the flesh (great white sharks are a prime example), there is a whole set of animals that make an even better test case: dinosaurs. These reptiles have extensive cultural significance and high recognizability, despite 65 million years of extinction (and little more than a century of contemporary scientific reconstruction). We think of them as inaccessible yet undeniable real (somewhat as many medieval Europeans thought of dragons, unicorns, or elephants). And yet our depictions of them are highly conventionalized and frequently at odds with science. Velociraptors are a particularly extreme example. Asked to draw or describe one, most Americans would present something like this:, whereas a paleontologist would know that the truth is closer to this: But the latter looks like a turkey – it does not fulfill the visual expectation that we have of a “Velociraptor,” and so we reject it. In order for the beast to fulfill its cultural function, it must look like the first, fictional creature, not the second, scientific one – which is why the latest Jurassic Park film must reject several decades of science and provide us, once again, with dragons. It is not that they don't know better, as we patronizingly say of our medieval ancestors. It is rather that, bent and subjected to cultural rather than ecological evolution, animals must always sacrifice biology to gain a place in human society.


  3. I'm interested by your third category of marginalia. It certainly covers significant portions of medieval animal art that we are not able to fit into categories of "scientific" and "allegorical" art. It occurs to me, though, that there may be art which is not in any of the three categories. Maybe an entirely different, looser system of categorization would work to describe a wider range of medieval art.

    The system that occurs to me involves starting not with the distinction between scientific and allegorical depictions, but with the distinction (or possibly a continuum) between depictions intended didactically and those not thus intended. We can then consider the marginalia as usually part of the category of non-didactic depictions. The depictions otherwise considered allegorical or scientific would then both be considered didactic, in that they attempt to demonstrate to the viewer some helpful aspect of the nature of the beast. The only real difference, then, is whether the aspect in question is what we would consider a scientific one. If it is, then the depiction would be such as Flores would call "scientific"--if not, then what she would call "allegorical."