Art, Exhibitions and Installations, J. Paul Getty Museum, Manuscripts and Books

The Manuscript Files: An Impish Ape in a Medieval Zoo

One of my favorite acquisitions of the past five years in the Getty’s manuscript collection is the Northumberland Bestiary (Ms. 100), featured currently in the Gothic Grandeur exhibition.

A bestiary is a kind of medieval encyclopedia of animals. In addition to physical and behavioral descriptions, however, there is also commentary about each animal as a reflection of God’s divine plan for the world.

Adam Naming the Animals in the Northumberland Bestiary / English

Adam Naming the Animals in the Northumberland Bestiary, unknown illuminator, English (London), about 1250–60. Ink tinted with body color and translucent washes on parchment, bound between pasteboard and covered with red morocco, each leaf 8 1/4 x 6 3/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 100, fol. 5v

The Northumberland Bestiary begins with a series of images depicting the Creation of the World, including, of course, the creation of the animals. This image near the beginning of the manuscript shows the first man, Adam, presiding over a gathering of all the world’s beasts.

At first the image looks like a jumble of animals—an eagle, a deer, a lion, a rooster, even a porcupine and a snail—all randomly scattered over the surface of the page. A closer look, however, reveals that the creatures are often paired: a foxlike animal bites the throat of a horse; a bird peers at an owl carrying a hapless mouse; a wild boar seems to launch itself from the back of a camel.

Details of animals in Adam Naming the Animals in the Northumberland Bestiary / English

These intricate details engage the viewer and indicate that the artist carefully planned and designed the page. Among all of the various encounters between the animals, however, only one creature directly engages the viewer, and unlike its charming companions on the page, this animal seems somehow sinister.

Detail of menacing ape in Adam Naming the Animals in the Northumberland Bestiary / English

The ape, with almost diabolical glee, peers out at the viewer in challenge. The bestiary text notes that this animal is called Simia in Latin, because of its similarity to humans, but with a cunning character. They text continues with the fact that apes are often equated with the devil, for just as each one has a head but no tail, so Satan began as an angel in heaven, but “he lost his tail, because he will perish totally at the end.”

As with every beast featured in the bestiary, then, the ape serves as an animal symbol of some aspect of Christianity. On this page, only Adam and the ape gaze directly out of the image to meet the viewer’s eye—one the regal founder of the human race, and the other a degraded reflection of man, encompassing his evil possibilities.

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  1. Posted March 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    So interesting, reminds me of Umberto Eco’s ‘Name of the Rose’ and his wonderfully evocative descriptions.

  2. Posted March 14, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Wow, gotta say this monkey looks as creepy as the Joker in the Dark Knight. His eyes look all sunk in a shadowy, as if he hasn’t slept, dreaming of diabolical deeds that he can perpetrate. Wicked cool.

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      All Hail Tiberius, Least Media-Savvy of the Roman Emperors

      Tiberius was proclaimed Roman emperor on September 17 in AD 14, exactly 2,000 years ago.

      He was also a bit wacko. “He was the least media-savvy emperor you could imagine,” says curator David Saunders, who has been in charge of this bronze portrait of Tiberius which leaves us on September 22. He point to this description found in the writings of Cassius Dio:

      Tiberius was a patrician of good education, but he had a most peculiar nature. He never let what he desired appear in his conversation, and what he said he wanted he usually did not desire at all. On the contrary, his words indicated the exact opposite of his real purpose; he denied all interest in what he longed for, and urged the claims of what he hated. He would exhibit anger over matters that were far from arousing his wrath, and make a show of affability where he was most vexed…In short, he thought it bad policy for the sovereign to reveal his thoughts; this was often the cause, he said, of great failures, whereas by the opposite course, far more and greater successes were attained.

      Moreover, David tells us, “Tiberius’s accession itself was a farrago: Tiberius sort-of feigning reluctance, the Senate bullying him, he being all, ‘Well, if-I-have-to,’ and in the end—according to Suetonius—saying he’ll do it as long as he can retire.”

      Suetonius is full of great, albeit spurious, anecdotes about poor old Tiberius, David reports. “When someone addressed him as ‘My Lord,’ it is said, Tiberius gave warning that no such insult should ever again be thrown at him.”

      Happy accession, My Lord!

      Portrait Head of Tiberius (“The Lansdowne Tiberius”), early 1st century A.D., Roman. The J. Paul Getty Museum

      Statue of Tiberius (detail), Roman, A.D. 37, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Laboratorio di Conservazione e Restauro. Currently on view at the Getty Villa following conservation and study.


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