Animals are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions; they pass no criticisms.”
– George Eliott
If I asked you to draw an animal about the size of a small row boat, half stag, half fish and it eats birds by tricking them into thinking it’s a piece of driftwood. What would that animal look like? I’m clearly describing a sea-stag, a medieval creature that menaces the ocean. If you haven’t been so lucky to have seen a Sea-Stag before, imagine that you had no access tothe internet to look it up or books to take reference from. The creature you drew would probably look like something from the mind of a child or a creature from a horror story.
In medieval times information was passed via word of mouth as they did not have the luxury of Wikipedia or Google. Records of everything you could think of were kept diligently by monks who resided in a monastery. These records included a bestiary which was a record ofall known animals, domestic like the dog or exotic like the lion. Due to the cloistered nature of these monks, they solely relied on outside information as to what these animals looked like. They would painstakingly write and draw the new findings from around the world. So by the time artists got the new intel on the latest, shiniest exotic animal, it would be 4th or 5th hand information. This plus artistic licence is why we have such bizarre-looking beasts in medieval art.
There was a great deal of emphasis on animals in medieval art. Their purpose was to serve as a mirror of human nature. An example would be a cat, cats are known to be mischievous and were often drawn with slightly disturbing features and a more human-like face to convey a sense of trickery or demonic power. In contrast, a dog is shown as loyal and quite normal in comparison thus generating a more positive impression of the subject. The animal would indicate an individual’s character more than the human subject whose neutral and passive face didn’t portray much. Fables were told with animals being the main focus to teach lessons of morality. This meant that the bestiary had to be readily available. Especially in the church where some parishioners were illiterate so they used this as a visual reminder during a sermon.
It’s very telling of how attitudes towards animals have changed in the western world throughout time; a cat today is seen as the ultimate companion to many with their fierce independence and funny personalities. Whereas a few centuries ago they were a symbol of something evil. Our four legged friends still have a well deserved place in art today and even though we still see them used as points of symbolism they have also graduated to being the main feature with many artists drawing inspiration from them.