Glencairn Museum News | Number 6, 2019
This spring, two exquisite stone sculptures from Glencairn Museum traveled over 2000 miles to take part in an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The twelfth-century capitals carved with lions once graced the tops of stone columns in the Abbey Church of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, France.
In each one, four lions gracefully twist and turn to form the corners of the square capital. In one (Figure 1), lion heads emerge on either side of a stylized plant, while in the other (Figure 2) they seem to reach around to bite their own knees. The lions have a delightful sense of energy evident in their curling manes, muscled flesh, and heavy paws.
Glencairn’s lions appear in the exhibition, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World (May 14 to August 18, 2019), which focuses on the bestiary, a type of medieval encyclopedia of animals that gained in popularity just at the time that Glencairn’s lion capitals were carved. The bestiary could contain anywhere from 50 to over 200 animals, but unlike modern encyclopedias that concentrate on scientific findings, the bestiary considered animals primarily as evidence of God’s wondrous Creation.
The bestiary therefore featured a mix of animals that included imaginary creatures (unicorns and dragons), those foreign to Europeans (elephants and tigers), and those familiar from daily life (hedgehogs and dogs). All these beasts of the world were seen as secret coded messages from God meant to reflect Christological truths.
Lions appear throughout the exhibition, since it was the first animal in every bestiary, and was known as the King of Beasts, an expression we continue to use today.
According to the bestiary, lion cubs are born dead. On the third day after birth, the father lion comes and breathes into their faces, literally breathing life into them. Medieval readers believed that this trait of lions was instilled in them by God at the beginning of time as a reflection in the natural world of Christ’s Resurrection three days after his Crucifixion and death. Of course, Europeans of this time period had no access to actual lions, and to them, this symbolic story was far more important than any information about their longevity, dietary habits, or average size that interests modern readers.
The animals of the bestiary and their stories became so popular that they escaped from the pages of the bestiary to inhabit all sorts of different artworks. They served the same purpose as today’s memes—a kind of visual language that was instantly identifiable to medieval viewers. Lions appeared everywhere, from metal water carriers to tapestries.
The Glencairn capitals are some of the earliest art works to feature in the exhibition, and exemplify how common animal imagery was on the inside of churches and cathedrals. Medieval viewers would no doubt have called to mind multiple stories associated with lions, from the biblical accounts of Daniel in the Lion’s Den to the bestiary’s claim that lions sleep with their eyes open, just as today when we see lions we might think of C.S. Lewis’s Aslan or Disney’s Simba. Lions were among the most commonly represented animals in the Middle Ages because of their rich symbolic value.
The exhibition, Book of Beasts features 115 works of art from 45 lending institutions across the US and Europe. We are delighted to welcome Glencairn Museum’s capitals here on their first vacation to the West Coast, where they have a chance to enchant the over 150,000 visitors we expect during the course of the exhibition.
Elizabeth Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts
Larisa Grollemond, Assistant Curator of Manuscripts
J. Paul Getty Museum
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