Whales or Dragons ?
Medieval artists seldom ever saw all the exotic animals mentioned in the Bible. They had to rely
on oral descriptions. As a consequence their imagination often produced very strange creatures
which had only few similarities with their living counterparts. E.g., in a museum in Paris I
once saw a medieval book with illustrations of the signs of the zodiac. The artist had been
told, that a scorpion is a strange beast with six legs and a tail able to sting. He thus
painted a six-legged dog-like animal with two tails!
This picture shows a detail from a tapestry (XI.th century) originating from the cathedral
of Garona (Spain). It is a scene from the genesis. Its lower part is dedicated to
sea animals: cancer, sea-serpent, fish and two creatures which should probably represent
whales or dolphins. The artist obviously had never seen his models. Based on oral descriptions
he designed these strange creatures, which could be misinterpreted as sea-dragons.
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© MCMXCVII by J. Georg Friebe
& Vorarlberger Naturschau, Dornbirn (Austria)
last update 08.06.1997