A monochromatic image of a single horse-shaped elephant with a long trunk, sharp tusks, and tail.

An Elephant (detail) in Miscellany: Physiologus and other texts, about 1510–20, unknown illuminator, made in Crete, Greece. Pen and red lead and iron gall inks, watercolors, tempera colors, and gold paint on parchment, 8 9/16 × 6 1/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 2, fol. 5. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Meet 18 animals of the medieval bestiary in Book of Beasts, a blog series created by art history students at UCLA with guidance from professor Meredith Cohen and curator Larisa Grollemond. The posts complement the exhibition Book of Beasts, on view at the Getty Center from May 14 to August 18, 2019. —Ed

What is large enough to carry a castle upon its back, has no knees, and can rival a dragon? According to medieval bestiaries, the elephant. These historical tomes of animal tales present the elephant as an implausible creature that unites a biblical message with extreme size and strength.

The bestiary, an encyclopedia-like book of creatures popular in the Middle Ages, found its origins in earlier historical texts such as the Greek Physiologus, a book of animal lore and moral symbolism. The medieval bestiary combined natural history (occasionally misconstrued) with Christian symbolism to create an educational and edifying text. In the bestiary, the elephant was imbued with a moral message of kindness toward others, devotion, and spiritual redemption.

Visual representations of the elephant vary across bestiary manuscripts. Frequently, elephants are depicted as large grey or white beasts with long trunks and straight legs ending in wide, flat feet. Some images are more true to what modern readers know elephants to look like, while others are approximations based on description alone, resulting in something that appears a bit like a horse with floppy ears and a long nose. These strange creatures may not resemble the elephant as we know it, but they may have appeared reasonable to a medieval reader in light of their similarity to more familiar creatures.

Carrier of Castles

Many manuscript illuminations depict the elephant carrying a fortified castle or tower, occasionally referred to as a howdah, upon its back. The accompanying texts claim that fighters could ride in these structures, waging war against other elephant-based castles.

Picturing elephants as unfathomably large, even capable of carrying entire buildings filled with humans, is understandable in the context of premodern Europe, when most people had never seen elephants outside of paintings in books. A few select individuals were granted the privilege of viewing an elephant in the flesh, and it was not unheard-of for someone of great wealth or power to house one in a private zoo; King Henry III of England is said to have had one in his menagerie in the mid-1200s.

An illuminated manuscript page depicting an elephant with curled tusks and a long trunk carrying a tower containing three people on its back.

An Elephant (detail) in the Northumberland Bestiary, about 1250–60, unknown illuminator, made in England. Pen-and-ink drawing tinted with body color and translucent washes on parchment, 8 1/4 × 6 3/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 100, fol. 17v. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Symbol of Redemption

The bestiary describes the elephant as a symbol for Christ and the hope for redemption. In one tale, a young elephant is the only creature that can return a older, fallen elephant to its feet. The young elephant in this story represents Jesus Christ, while the rescued adult elephant symbolizes mankind’s redemption from a life of sin. This story conveyed to readers that the only source of salvation was Christian faith.

The historical basis of this story is the mistaken claim that elephants cannot bend their knees in order to safely lie down or get back up, thus forcing them to sleep propped against trees. This detail was likely derived from Greek texts compiled around 400 BC, and was perpetuated by continued copying.

Many bestiaries claim that elephants are largely monogamous asexual animals and only reproduce once to create their sole child. The books describe this event as a journey to a land of paradise, in which both future parents consume fruit from a tree and conceive without fail. Cast in the role of Adam and Eve, elephants reenact the first sin and subsequent ejection from Eden in the biblical book of Genesis. To a medieval reader, this would have served as a reminder to engage in religious devotion.

Along with its unwavering devotion to its partner and its obedience to God, the elephant embodied general goodness toward man and animal alike. Its kindness is emphasized in stories of offering assistance to lost strangers and taking care to be gentle when in the presence of more vulnerable creatures. Even without a depiction or biblical parallel, the meaning of this story is clear: there is inherent value in respect and benevolence.

Though we no longer rely on bestiaries for education in religion or natural history, they can deepen our appreciation for elephants and other animals by exploring new layers of meaning we may never have imagined.

A monochromatic image of a single horse-shaped elephant with a long trunk, sharp tusks, and tail.

An Elephant in Miscellany: Physiologus and other texts, about 1510–20, unknown illuminator, made in Crete, Greece. Pen and red lead and iron gall inks, watercolors, tempera colors, and gold paint on parchment, 8 9/16 × 6 1/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 2, fol. 5. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Further Reading

Begle, Grace Griffith. 1900. “Caesar’s Account of the Animals in the Hercynian Forest (De Bello Gallico, VI, 25–28).” The School Review 8 (8): 457–65.

Clark, Willene B., and Meredith T. McMunn. Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages: The Bestiary and Its Legacy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.

Henderson, Arnold Clayton. 1982. “Medieval Beasts and Modern Cages: The Making of Meaning in Fables and Bestiaries.” PMLA 97 (1): 40–49.

Schrader, J. L. 1986. “A Medieval Bestiary.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 44 (1): 1–55.

Text of this post © Dani Giglia. All rights reserved.

A small dragon with the words Book of Beasts

This post is part of the series Book of Beasts, which introduces the animals of the medieval bestiary—a Christian compendium of real and imaginary beasts.
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