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Beast Imagery and the Bestiary

By Alice Kemp-Welch

The Nineteenth Century and After, a Monthly Review, Volume 54, number 369, September 1903, pages 501-509

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French religious art, as part of the general evolution of Christian art, had adopted pagan motives from both Rome and Byzantium, adapting and developing them in accordance with its own spirit. It is especially through the animal imagery, both symbolic and grotesque, which was the outcome of this process, that we must seek to understand the religious as well as the social and satirical spirit of the age, and how closely these elements were interwoven. At no time, and in no country, perhaps, did symbolic animals play a more important part, both in literature and in art, than they did in the Middle Ages in France. The beast confronts us everywhere, greeting us at the church portal, on cornice and capital, in painted window and illuminated manuscript, in sermon and song, in fable and romance, and in its own special province, the Bestiary, or Book of Beasts, aptly called 'the Christian symbolic menagerie ofthe Middle Ages.' In many of these instances the beast was chosen to represent virtue as well as vice. It was not till the later Middle Ages that the beast-carving in the sanctuary, like the beast-fable in literature, was made use of as a form of satire, behind which the exponent of social wrong, whether artist or minstrel, could, so to speak, hide himself, and give unbridled expression to the growing want of respect for those in high places. - [Kemp-Welch]


The print editon was published in 1903. This file is the Alice Kemp-Welch article from the journal The Nineteenth Century and After, 1903, which contains several other unrelated texts. The book was digitized by Google, and is in the public domain. Only the page images are included in this file; for other formats see the full digital text.

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