When the mythical bonnacon, an animal resembling a bull with a horse’s mane and curling horns, was pursued by hunters it released a stream of potent excrement that burned everything in its path.
This is just one of the 106 creatures ranging from a pelican with its young through to a hedgehog spearing apples on its prickles, which can be found in a medieval bestiary, one of Trinity’s prized manuscripts, currently on loan to an exhibition at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World brings together 34 bestiaries from around the world – the largest number ever gathered together – alongside artwork inspired by these curious and compelling books.
In its first seven weeks the exhibition welcomed more than 88,000 visitors and curators Elizabeth Morrison and Larisa Grollemond said the museum was thrilled by the response from children, adults and scholars alike.
A bestiary is a collection of animal images and stories, sometimes with symbolic or moral meanings, intended to teach and entertain medieval readers.
It was the most popular type of illuminated book in northern Europe in the 13th century. Featuring imaginary, exotic and common animals, the bestiary was not intended as a zoological compendium but instead to provide a symbolic or moralising worldview examining the life of Christ and exploring vice and virtue.
The pelican, for example, reviving its young with blood from its own breast, symbolises the Resurrection of Christ. Even the humorous bonnacon might have encouraged people to think about ways of fighting evil!
Trinity’s bestiary is one of the star exhibits of the exhibition at the J Paul Getty Museum. Dr Morrison said:
The jewel-like illuminations of the Trinity Bestiary are not only artistically accomplished, but also contribute to a deeper understanding of the visual development of the bestiary in the thirteenth century. Its stunning images are a highlight of the portion of the exhibition dedicated to walking visitors through the sections of a bestiary. Animals such as mandrakes are very popular with visitors, but the lesser-known bonnacon is a delightful surprise, and its story is told at a nearby audio-station.
Part of that delightful story is relayed by Willene B Clark in A Medieval Book of Beasts: The Second-Family Bestiary: Commentary, Art, Text and Translation, who wrote ‘…whatever defense the beast’s front end lacks, the belly makes up for. For when it turns to flee, it emits a fart three acres long, using an overflow of the large intestine, a fart so hot that it scorches whatever it touches. Thus by an offensive discharge the bonnacon banishes pursuers.’
The images in the Trinity bestiary are tiny, some measuring only 25mm x 25mm. Unlike other bestiaries that usually have an image of the animal before the story about them, in Trinity’s manuscript the miniature paintings are set into the columns of the text. In an inventive style for the 13th century, the images are justified to the right in the right-hand column and to the left in the left-hand column.
The miniatures were painted on parchment with great delicacy in tempera colours within gold leaf or gold paint frames. Trinity’s Sub-Librarian, Sandy Paul, says: ‘The pigments largely retain their brilliance and freshness because of the way in which they have been cared for in the Library over the centuries. The incredible creations continue to fascinate and perplex the modern mind just as they did the minds of our medieval ancestors.’
Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World at the J Paul Getty Museum runs until 18 August. Entry is free.
The bestiary is now part of a miscellany, bound with other manuscripts, and can be viewed via the Wren Digital Library.