Animals in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Illustrations from the Middle Ages

Book of Beasts, Facsimile of MS Bodley 764 (13th century)

2008. Oxford: Bodleian Library

12 in. x 7.75 in.

PR275.B4H36 2008

Library West General Collection, George A. Smathers Libraries


The Bodley 764 manuscript, housed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is from a family of bestiaries based upon the Etymologiæ, an etymological encyclopedia compiled by Isidore of Seville in the 7th century CE. The page exhibited here shows an elephant ensnared by a serpent. The idea that an elephant could be killed by a snake was taken from Pliny the Elder’s Book of Natural History (1st century CE). Pliny described how the large serpents of India encircled the elephant to strangle it. In the Book of Beasts the serpent or dragon is likened to the Devil; the great elephant and his wife represented Adam and Eve.


The drawing of the elephant is crudely executed. Yet, people living in England at that time would have found it hard to imagine such a creature. Certainly the text itself (based on Isidore and derived from Pliny) would not have helped since it described the elephant as the size of a mountain and unable to bend its knees. Nevertheless, the drawing is not completely inaccurate, which may have been because the artist had a chance to see or hear about the first elephant brought to England (at least since Roman times) in 1253 CE around the time this manuscript was composed. Here the creature has the correct scale, even if his ears are too small and his tusks protrude upwards in an unnatural manner.

The Visconti Hours, Facsimile of a manuscript in the National Library, Florence, Italy (14th century)

1972. New York: George Braziller

10.5 in. x 7.5 in.


Rare Books Collection, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries


The Visconti Hours was commissioned by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the ruler of Milan, Italy, in the 14th century. A Book of Hours was a type of personal prayer book usually commissioned by the wealthy ruling classes; they were extremely popular in the Middle Ages. This particular prayer book was crafted by two master illuminators. Giovannino de Grassi, an Italian painter, sculptor and architect began the illuminations for Gian; however, both died before the work was completed. Luchino Belbello da Pavia, a 15th century painter and illuminator, and his assistants finished the Hours. His style, evident in his depictions of nature and lush verdant borders, was more fanciful than the finer, more elegant style of de Grassi.


On folio 46v, seen here in facsimile, the figures of God with Adam and Eve are enclosed in a capital letter C at the center of the page. Vine leaves encircle the miniature and link it to the landscape in the border where animals and plant life recalling the early days of Creation reside. In the upper corners, the artist has included the Viscontis’ strange coat of arms in which a serpent devours a child. The overall impression is fantastical mixture of the real and the imagined. For example, the hunting leopard, one of the Viscontis’ favorite animals is rendered realistically. The elephants and monkeys, however, are drawn much more simplistically even though such animals were owned by the Viscontis and could have been seen by the artist. This discrepancy may have arisen because the artist practiced drawing his masters’ favorite animals more than other beasts. Nevertheless, the image of the elephant had improved a century after the artist of MS Bodley 764 (above) tried to capture it.