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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance
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The Bestiaries were a large genre of medieval books on the symbolic significance of animals. The genre became extremely popular by the 12th century particularly in England but was based on the much earlier Physiologus, usually translated as ‘the Naturalist’ which was one of the most widely circulated books of the early Middle Ages and probably originated as a Greek text in Alexandria from the 2nd Century AD. The Physiologus was translated into almost every language in the Western world, from Ethiopian to Icelandic, and it was adopted by the Church as a convenient vehicle for the propagation of Christian morality.
Over the centuries, the standard format of the Physiologus expanded from just forty-nine entries to over one hundred. Many of the animals described, such as the Unicorn, the Phoenix, the Centaur, the Siren and the Antlion, are now known to be fictitious but this did not deter the editors at the time. St. Augustine had validated the genre since according to him it did not matter whether certain animals existed or not, what mattered is what they signified. ‘Moreover, if for the administration of the sacraments, certain symbolisms are drawn, not only from the heavens and stars, but also from all the lower creation, the intention is to provide the doctrine of Salvation with a sort of eloquence, adapted to raise the affections of those to whom it is presented from the visible to the invisible, from the corporeal to the spiritual, from the spiritual to the eternal.’
The Bestiary, which was obviously based on the Physiologus since the very name derived from the opening line of the latter, the ‘Bestiarum Vocabulum’, eventually superseded the Physiologus and can be distinguished from it by the expansion of the number of animals treated, the addition of images and a change from spiritual to moral interpretations of the symbolic message. By the middle of the 16th Century the Physiologus was almost forgotten. It was described by Gesner in the list of sources for his Historia Animalium, the History of Animals, as by an ‘author obscurus’ although examples of both the Physiologus and the Bestiary were still in circulation. Caussin included the Physiologus of St. Epiphanius in his commentary on the hieroglyphs, De Symbolica Aegyptorum Sapienta (On the Symbolic Wisdom of the Egyptians) of 1618 although his commentary was confined to just one of the animals described.
Gesner’s vast tome of some 3,500 pages published from 1551-1587 is usually reckoned to be the first modern work of zoology, but nevertheless, each of his descriptions is prefaced with a symbolic interpretation of the animal he was describing. Another contemporary revival of the Bestiary was the Decades de la description …des animaulx of 1549 by Aneau and Gueroult both of whom also wrote emblem books. And there were books of emblems and devices which had animal themes such as Symbolorum & Emblematum Centuria, a Century of Symbols and Emblems, by Joachim Camerarius.
Another genre which had developed in the late Middle Ages was called the beast fable or beast epic of which one of the most celebrated was the Roman de Renart from the 12th Century, a series of satirical tales which inspired one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The beast epic did not falter in popularity and versions were written by many later authors including Spenser and Dryden.
Birds also had symbolic significance for medieval Christians and many of the bestiaries had entries on birds. The formal title for a collection of the exposition of the symbols of birds is a volucrary and the most widely known volucrary in the Renaissance was that by Jean de Cuba in his book Jardin de Santé which describes 122 birds and gives pertinent extracts from the relevant classical authorities.
See also: Herbals, Lapidaries