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.
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.
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.
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.