Illuminator’s Blog: The Royal Bestiary


The Royal Bestiary

– my first project –

Bestiaries may appear to a modern reader as somewhat eccentric creations of medieval mind. Full of bizarre stories and descriptions of real and imaginary creatures, the books of beasts were not, however, indented as manuals of natural history. Instead, the nature and habits of animals were meant to reveal to the reader a moral or spiritual guidance. The physical world described bestiaries was like a book written by God in which each element could teach and instruct. Therefore, it is likely that these often densely illustrated books were used for instruction of the young novices in medieval monasteries.

The Royal Bestiary at the British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix is one of the most beautiful examples of its kind. The manuscript was produced in the first decade of the thirteenth century in central or northern England and contains one of the earliest paintings in gold and colours that begun to replace earlier bestiary illustrations in outline and tinted drawing.

(Here is the link to the description of this manuscript that I wrote for the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

The Royal Bestiary is currently displayed on the exhibition ‘Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illuminations’ at the British Library (check out the interactive that allows you to leaf through this book on a touch screen). It is opened on the first miniature showing a family of lions. Here is my take on this illustration. I transformed the original miniature into a slightly bigger image, but remained faithful to the original technique and materials. The pigments used are all mineral (lapis lazuli, malachite and cinnabar), except the white paint and the black ink (I used a Chinese ink). The golden background is made of 24 k gold leaf raised on gesso and tooled.


watercolour on parchment, gold leaf

inspired by The British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, f. 6

 In medieval Bestiaries the lion is a figure of Christ. According to the text, the lion cubs are born dead and are only brought to life after three days by a breath of their father. This characteristic is an allegory of Christ’s resurrection on his third day in the tomb. However, the lions licking their cubs, illustrated here, may refer to the Natural History of Pliny the Elder (d. 79), one of the important classical sources of medieval knowledge. According to Pliny, lions’ cubs are born unformed and it is their parent tongue that licks them into shape.


Manticore, watercolour on parchment, gold leaf

inspired by The British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, 29v

Manticore is one of the most extraordinary creatures described in medieval bestiaries. This hybrid of a man, lion and scorpion (in the Royal Bestiary scorpion’s tail was not illustrated) is extremely ferocious and feeds on human flesh.

This image is already in a private collection, but I am currently working on a new one and it may be yours.

Dragon and Elephant

Elephant and Dragon under-drawing on parchment

inspired by The British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, f. 62

I have started working on another image from the Royal Bestiary. It shows two mortal enemies: the elephant and the dragon. The text tells us that the dragon, the largest of all serpents, is a figure of the devil. It kills its victims by suffocating them to death. Here, the dragon attempts to suffocate an elephant, but the attempt is vain.

Do you want to find out more about medieval beasts? check out  a virtual exhibition by Emily Runde (British Library)


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