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The Oxford Bestiarium
Fantastic animal pictures on rich gold leaf
Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Ashmole 1511, Southern England, 12th century

CODICES SELECTI, Vol. LXXVI

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Further Pictures

 

Bestiaries, illustrated books of animals, whose moralistic contents relate to selected biblical texts, were highly popular in the late 12th century. Our Oxfordian manuscript probably ranks among the finest examples of its kind. The magnificent codex, richly embellished with gold leaf, not only exceeds itself with its marvellous luminous opaque colour painting and clear depiction of animals, plants and human beings, but also in its predilection for serene symmetry, refined ornament and frequent use of carefully executed diaper-patterned backgrounds.
The pictures are irregularly dispersed throughout the text. According to our modern conception, the animals often depict a surreal view of nature: a crocodile with a serpent’s head and bird’s feet, a horned panther with rather arbitrary colouring are but a few examples of an astonishing iconography which, far from naturalistic sketches, was based on the free interpretation of literary models.

130 gilded animal depictions

The book contains an overwhelming wealth of animal depictions: 130 miniatures within only 105 pages illustrate several chapters on nature and the qualities of animals; birds, snakes, worms, fish, trees, flintstones, as well as the nature of mankind. Of special interest is the illustration of Genesis in the beginning of the book, which is set amongst exceptionally enlarged and boldly narrative painted scenes.

   
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