Today I went to “Gilded Beasts,” an exhibition of the Aberdeen Bestiary, at the Aberdeen University Library. A Bestiary is book of illustrated stories about animals, real and mythical, which were all the rage back in the mediaeval times. The stories or descriptions are about the animals, but they also have a moralistic and/or religious lesson. The source of the Aberdeen Bestiary is unknown, but it made its way into the library of Henry VIII, and was later given to Thomas Reid, who donated it to Marischal College, where it then became part of the Aberdeen University collection when Marischal and King’s College merged.
Seeing the Bestiary was just amazing. It’s so beautiful. I’ve seen it on the internet, as the library has digitised all the pages and they’re displayed with full translations and commentary online. But to see it in real life was just something else. You can really appreciate the detail, understand why it is referred to as an illuminated text – it really does shine, with all the gold leaf used – and also understand how this would have been something truly awe inspiring and revered. It wasn’t just for keeping on a shelf though, it was used for teaching children about morality and Christianity, as well as for teaching Latin, and it’s picked up plenty of smudges and thumb marks on the sides over the years. What makes this one more interesting is that it’s actually unfinished, so there are a lot of details and ‘notes’ along the unfinished sides that give historians a whole other view into the process of creating it.
It was also my first visit to the exhibition space within the University’s new library, and I have to say I was impressed. It’s not a huge space, but it was made to feel intimate, rather than limited. The exhibition was laid out really nicely; information boards with a good balance of detail, a display of some of the tools and ink sources used to create the Bestiary, a videoscreen showing various images from the Bestiary, and an engagement space, which had a video of schoolchildren’s stories inspired by the Bestiary, and an ‘art table’. This had some plates with prints from the Bestiary in relief, and paper and crayons laid out for rubbings (I wasn’t the only adult enjoying it!). The rubbing above is of a Leopard, which is the offspring of a lion and a ‘pard’ (one of the mythical wild cats).
I enjoy visiting museums and seeing historic pieces, but every time, I just can’t believe how something *that* old is still intact and in front of me today! This Bestiary, if I’m not mistaken, is one of the better preserved ones. You can really see how the gold is still lustrous, and the colours are still so vibrant. If you’re in Aberdeen over the next couple of months, do try and see it. They’re turning the pages each week, so I’m definitely going back a a few more times.
I also did a few more rubbings 🙂