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Interpreting the Beasts of the Middle Ages

We have often looked at medieval bestiaries and marveled at the misunderstandings they convey. Reports of exotic animals from far away were misinterpreted because the witness and the artist were rarely the same person. And then there are those imaginary animals, such as dragons and unicorns. Even familiar animals are depicted in ways that don't line up with reality. An exhibit at the Getty Center in Los Angeles takes a different look at medieval depictions of animals, that they were used to impart religious concepts.

A Christian text written in Greek called the Physiologus, likely written in the second or third centuries CE, provides a predecessor to medieval bestiaries and became a popular text during the Middle Ages and was translated into multiple languages. It told 48 stories about the nature of real and mythical plants and animals, each with a religious interpretation of the figures regarded as allegories. In the late fourth century CE, Saint Augustine also began to address the role of animals in religious doctrine. The bishop and theologian published a number of volumes instructing Christians how to read Christian texts.

This view holds that the metaphors were more important than accuracy, because that's how concepts could be passed along to people who could neither read nor purchase books. Read more about the exhibit at Hyperallergic. -via Damn Interesting

(Image credit: The J Paul Getty Museum)

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