Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Book Review: Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World Edited by Elizabeth Morrison with Larisa Grollemond

Pros: lots of gorgeous full colour illustrations, essays on a variety of topics, thorough discussion on the evolution of bestiaries

Cons: some of the essays are dense

This is the guide that accompanies the exhibition “Book of Beasts” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibit runs from May 14th to August 18th.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one is an introduction plus images and text for the 15 best known bestiary animals. Part two: Exploring the Bestiary is subdivided into The Bestiary in form and function (consisting of 6 essays and the first 28 catalogue listings) and The Bestiary Reimagined (two essays and 5 listings). Part three: Beyond the Bestiary is again subdivided, with catalogue listings after each essay. It’s sections are: Church and Court (3 essays) and Bestiaries and Natural History (4 essays). The epilogue is followed by the final catalogue listings and four appendices.

I found the first few essays of part 2 boring due to their dry and somewhat dense prose. There’s a fair amount of repetition in that most of these essays opened with similar background paragraphs on Bestiaries and their origins in the Greek book Physiologus. For me, the most interesting essay of this section was “Accommodating Antlers, Making Room for Hedgehogs, and Other Problems of Page Design in the Medieval Bestiary”. It was interesting learning how scribes and illustrators may have been working from different manuscripts and so their work didn’t always line up.

The later essays were much more interesting, both in style an content. There’s less minutiae about the manuscripts making them more accessible and I enjoyed learning new things about how bestiaries influenced other forms of art like maps and sculptures. I also appreciated that there were separate essays on Jewish and Muslim uses of animals in manuscripts. Those essays all felt too short, given the amount of information being discussed.

I liked that there are occasional ‘notes to the reader’ explaining some of the terms so that even those who haven’t studied manuscripts can understand the more scholarly language used. The notes for catalogue listings generally mentioned if a manuscript has been fully or partially digitized and is available online for further study. Unfortunately these notes are in such small text I’m afraid some readers will miss this information.

Catalogue images are all reproduced in colour and there was a good variety. I loved seeing the evolution of the genre and how the stories were reinterpreted in later works. I was surprised that some of the images were duplicated though. A page would be used to illustrate an essay and than that same page would be one of the images used to illustrated the catalogue listing for that manuscript. Given the fact that each manuscript only got one or two images, I would have expected different pages to be used each time in order to maximize the number of different images shown.

If you’re new to bestiaries this is an excellent primer, though you’ll have to work a bit to understand some of the terms. For those with some knowledge, it will increase it and suggest other works to examine. If you’re well versed in the subject the later essays don’t go far enough to suggest new avenues of study, though the earlier ones do an excellent job of showing what scholarship has been done and what still needs examination.

This looks like an excellent exhibit and I wish I could attend and see all of these manuscripts and artworks in person.

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