From Physiologus To Bestiary: Function And Desideratum

Towards the end of the 12th century, in full maturity of the Romanesque order—and this concordance is purely symptomatic—a new type of book was created: The Bestiary with illuminations, which would have a particular impact and an overwhelming influence among educated people. At the time, the book of beasts replaced The Physiologus, the book that marks the end of Christian antiquity (2nd century, in Alexandria), on which it relies for the essential way of allegorical and symbolical interpretation of nature (physis) with strict reference to the moral ideas and significances of Christianity. Both the Physiologus and the various forms of Bestiaries accompany each other up to the period mentioned above, since both forms reproduce the Latin variant of the Physiologus as a very detailed observation of Nature seen as a place where divine energy is actually omnipresent, and exotic and fantastic things are nothing but the second name of a mystical meaning, according to the principle of medieval allegoresis as forma mentis. Bestiaries will especially maintain the natural forms of the animals, as well as the zoomorphic types, which will constitute a system of animal symbolism. The illuminations, totally absent in the Physiologus, become the center of interpretation in the case of the Bestiary: the image made with a gold leaf and expensive pigments usually dominates the page, making room for the text in order to lead to reciprocal illumination. The book obviously has an educational and moralizing[1] function, but it also surprises or disconcerts due to the taste for image. An aesthetic mutation is taking place here, with theological implications, marking a break in the medieval episteme: the function of the image as an interceptor of vision, a phenomenon that is also accompanied by the paradox of iconographic boldness (the taste for the bizarre, schizomorphic and the exotic) in a simultaneous relation to an obviously iconoclastic accent (the fantastic anti-naturalism). The symptom may be noticed in the reaction of Saint Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, in a letter addressed in 1127[2] to abbot Suger at Saint-Denis monastery. From the position of an aesthetic of simplicity and severity, of clarity (claritas) of form—as a category of beauty that welcomes all the exigencies of a theological discourse—Saint Bernard interferes negatively to sanction “the deformed beauty or the beautiful deformity” (deformis formositas ac formosa deformitas)[3] of the monster with a horse’s chest and a goat’s back, or the animals that are half humans (“disgusting monkeys”). Saint Bernard’s serene contemplation of the miracles of form is troubled by this hybrid morphology, by the schizomorphism that opposes the image of creation that is the Bible, or the foundation of the basilica, the church or the cathedral, as an image at once sensitive and symbolic, considering the harmonious relations between the church and the universe, where the church has to bring out the ontological immanence of an active divine virtue. Saint Bernard speaks about a cathedral, but also about the books studied by his fellow monks. The Abbot of Clairvaux’s consternation, as he notices the abundance of this inverted nature in architectural decoration, much like in the books studied inside this edifice of contemplation and ascension, becomes suspended in a chiasm (“deformed beauty and beautiful deformity”) that denies the criterion of terrestrial beauty, that of “harmony and luminosity” (bene compaction et claritas) whose desideratum is to guide the human mind towards the transcendental cause of this harmony. “The grandeur” and “the splendor” (as attributes of the superb) of the church reflect on recollection. The same bizarre examples of zoomorphism that decorate the Romanesque cathedral aimed at by Bernard accompany the texts “of the breviaries that the brothers are reading”, as Bernard leads us to understand: all those deformed beauties. Following the Jewish heritage of Christianity, the church (just like the temple) constitutes itself as an imago mundi, because the world is a divine creation, and the Temple is the place of the constant re-sanctification of the world, as it both represents and contains it at the same time. The book is the image of the history of this creation. If the same images decorate both the church and the book, therefore the two images are indistinct, we cannot help but thinking of an extreme tension (captured in a chiasm by Saint Bernard) that manifests itself within the believer’s conscience: the desideratum to represent the world, the divine creation, symbolically—where the symbol is the sign whose signifier is entirely concrete, but whose signifié constantly escapes representation—is satisfied by the very paradoxical nature of the symbol to continuously generate meaning and to be hungry for meaning. The desire to represent by an image, when what constitutes the essential of the represented nature—the active divine energy—escapes representation, is accompanied by the iconoclastic hesitation of representation. The image, as a place where moral or emblematic meaning is generated, and as a place where mystical meaning is generated through the symbol, will have a disconcerting dual nature: concreteness and a signifier (a thing of representation) that escapes representation, but which is nevertheless present in vision and contemplation. In fact, the more the image is contradictory in itself—both morphologically and syntactically, according to the principle of allegory, that of calling by another name whatever eludes representation—, even in an exotic or bizarre way, the more it proves its desideratum to act as interceptor of vision and contemplation. Translated by Daniela Oancea
[1] Cf. Ron Baxter, Bestiaries and their users in the Middle ages, Sutton Publishing, Courtaud Institute, 1998.[2] Saint Bernard de Clairvaux, Textes politiques, choisis et traduit de Paul Zumthor, Paris, 1986, p. 98-101.[3] Saint Bernard de Clairvaux, op. cit., p. 100.

by Emil Moangă