Creatures in Medieval Art

Animals of a variety, realistic and fictional, made their mark on Medieval Art, as decorative pieces imagined for innovative impact on manuscripts and architecture, to educational figures meant to depict scenes from biblical texts. Medieval creatures managed to leave their mark not only on their period of history, but transcend and captivate individuals well up to the current time.

Being a highly religious era, most creatures in art during the middles ages, were used in context of religious teaching. Beasts were used as symbols; animals of all types were created to depict moral lessons for people of the medieval century. Religious art often used animal imagery for this purpose. One such example is the dove, a representation of purity and peace for Christians. This image was used time and time again – standing across time to penetrate religious art to this day – and is often created to symbolize the Holy Spirit in religious art. Images of doves can be found on stone sculptures, structures and paintings, all transmitting the message of hope in Christianity.

These creatures were repeatedly used to educate people not only on contents of religious texts, but in many instances, the consequences of disobeying them. While the greater populace was unable to read texts, the animals created a catalyst for messages and stories. Many times the fictional creatures represented various sins or temptations, meant to frighten people into following a moralistic path. One such creature meant to convey meaning and morality is the Leviathan, which was a symbol of Satan and his powers. Often animals associated with evil were meant to be manifestations of Satan as he prowled the earth in an attempt to destroy God’s creatures. Similarly, the Leviathan was a destroyer of God’s creatures as it attempted to devour them.


The Hoopoe, a small bird, depicted in literature as a creature that returns to its parents and becomes their caregivers as they grow old; is an allegory for children to take care of their parents as they age.

Ideas and depictions of these creatures would later influence as well as be influenced by popular literature – which would impact art similarly – by manuscripts such as the Physiologus and later on The Bestiary, managing to further pique audience’s interest in the animals that surrounded them and that haunted their imaginations during the Middle Ages.


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