Bestiarium aus Peterborough

Parker Library in the Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 53

The Bestiary, which was created around 1300 in the English Abbey Peterborough, is one of the most splendid examples of its kind. Over 100 Miniatures on gold layers or within a golden frame show the world of animals back then and also fabulous animals like the unicorn and the phoenix.

The Peterborough Bestiary

The reception in classical Antiquity

While knowledge of animal symbolism was wide-spread in the Middle Ages, the Peterborough Bestiary fascinates today’s readers with its wealth of late Antique knowledge of biology, mythology and philosophy. The book is essentially based on a text called Physiologus that was presumably written around 200 AD in Alexandria. The term of “physiologus” may perhaps best be translated as someone knowledgeable in Nature.

Indeed, the anonymous author uses this pseudonym to present the behavior of real and fabulous animals and based on the Christian faith, creates allegorical links with God, Mankind and the Devil. The text immediately enjoyed great popularity. It was translated into a great many languages over the centuries and completed with additions from other sources until it finally became a bestiary in the 12th century.

The most extensive addition to the original text goes back to the famous medieval enyclopaedia, the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville from the 7th century. His writings enjoyed uncontested authority through-out the Middle Ages, as did the Bestiary.

Exuberant decoration with miniatures, decorated initials, drolleries and scrollwork

The Peterborough Bestiary is among the most sumptuously decorated extant bestiaries. A total of 104 miniatures adorn all pages of the manuscript: they are either set on glowing gold grounds within colored Gothic ornamental frames or on colorfully patterned grounds framed in gold.

108 colorfully decorated initials extending over several lines precede the individual chapters on each animal. Their decoration alternatively consists of either biomorphic interlace or of small male or female portraits. These are a typical feature of English book production. Colored scrollwork runs in the intercommunal space, housing small birds and drolleries. The page format of 34.8 x 23.6 cm makes the Peterbrorough Bestiary one of the largest manuscripts of its kind.

The Peterborough Bestiary

Parker Library in the Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 53

Peterborough – a centre of spirituality and learning

Such an elaborate manuscript must have been the work of a well-equipped scriptorium. Throughout the 900 years of its existence, the Abbey and later Cathedral of Peterborough always played an important part in the English ecclesiastical landscape. It not only produced liturgical deluxe volumes but also a wide range of sumptuously decorated manuscripts of scientific research and study.

The Peterborough Bestiary has been kept in the Parker Library of the famous Corpus Christi College in Cambridge since 1575, as part of the anthology MS 53.

An original book for both clerics and the laity

Popular with both ecclesiastical and secular audiences alike, bestiaries, together with Psalters and Apocalypses, were among the most widely read illuminated manuscripts in England and Northern France from the 12th century onwards. They offered the cleric eager to illustrate his sermons a true mine of examples from the animal world whilst private customers took more delight in the original illustrations and the curious animal descriptions.

The animal kingdom described and interpreted in a splendid picture book

Animal books have been known since classical Antiquity and it is no surprise that they werde among the most popular illustrativ Manuskripts of the Middle Ages. A particularly fine example is the Peterborough Bestiary produced around 1300 with great knowledge of art and nature in an East Anglian abbey.

Dogs, horses, monkeys and lions, deer, sirens and the phoenix, feature among the more than 100 animals piante and described in the book which, in accordance with the Zustrom of the time, interpreta their behavior from a Christological Perspektive. People believed in animals that dien not exist and fabulous qualities were attributed to many real animals.

Fabulous local and exotic fauna in Gothic imagery

The descriptions of more than 100 terrestrial and aquatic animals, birds, and reptiles, makes the Peterborough Bestiary one of the most comprehensive works of its kind. It opens with the lion as the king of beasts, while also exploring fabulous creatures, such as the phoenix, the unicorn and the griffon. A particular challenge to the English artist were the exotic animals, such as the antelope, the elephant and the crocodile that he might have known only from model books or travel literature.

The transition from Romanesque to Gothic art, which stated in France, also gave rise to a completely new style of painting in England. The wish for increased three-dimensionality generally led to more gracefully painted and swifter lines. The bodies of the animals now are standing out clearly from the background, their swift movements making them appear more natural. The miniatures in the Peterborough Bestiary provide a vibrant panorama of the local and exotic fauna, in a manner much closer to nature than preceding Romanesque examples.

The facsimile edition

All 44 pages of the Peterborough Bestiary are reproduced in the original format of 34.8 x 23.6 cm in a limited edition of 1.480 copies world-wide. The volume comes in a hand produced and blind-tooled brown leather binding. All sheets and trimmed in accordance with the original and stitched to the contents by hand. The cover is tooled using roulettes, showing motives of the griffon, the lion and the dragon.

An academic commentary volume, including a complete transcription and translation, by Christopher de Hamel, Cambridge, and Lucy Freeman Sandler, New York, facilitates the understanding of the manuscript.