September 24, 2012 by Gail Armstrong
Typical illuminated manuscript page: main image illustrating a Biblical scene – anything from a joyous nativity to a gruesome crucifixion – surrounded by a pretty, and occasionally whimsical border.
It’s true there are some very beautiful manuscript borders, and many that surprise with touches of whimsy; but anyone who thinks the borders are a safe haven, a place of flowers and swirling acanthus leaves, of birds, butterflies and bunnies, should take a closer look…sometimes you’ll find all is not sweetness and light in border-land.
Take, for example, this page from the Macclesfield Psalter. A pleasing page, yes? Nice gilding, touches of delicate blue and pink, leaves sprouting prettily here and there…but take a closer look….
No, even closer…
Yes, that’s right – here in full horror is a bunny being…gasp…murdered! Okay, it’s a jousting match, so I guess he knew what he may be in for. But look at the shock on his furry face as his brief bunny-hood passes before his eyes. Witness the blood spewing from the open wound where the lance protrudes, dripping viscously onto the horse’s hind-quarters. This is graphic violence if ever I saw it, and used to illustrate Psalm 104, a celebration of the glory and generosity of God and, in particular, his great thoughtfulness in providing homes and food for all the creatures of creation. And this is how the artist chose to illustrate these thoughts – by showing possibly the cuddliest of all creatures being skewered by a glowering greyhound?
At least on the next page he showed us the aftermath, the grieving community of bunnies left behind to mourn their fallen friend. Here, with full pomp and circumstance, is the unfortunate rabbit’s funeral:
This time the vignette illustrates Psalm 105 which reminds us of some of the Lord’s harsher manifestations of power against the disobedient (locusts, plagues, darkness, famine, etc.). Is there some lesson in the rabbit’s fate aligning with these two psalms? We’ll never know…as with so many murders, the motive remains a mystery.
Rabbits weren’t the only ones in peril in mediaeval pages. I’ve seen probably several dozen illustrations of unicorns throughout texts both religious and secular, and I recall only one where the poor creature wasn’t in imminent peril. This one is all too typical:
You know the story…unicorn spies virgin, trots over to have a nestle on her knee, only to be speared from behind. There are some variations. Sometimes the virgin has forgotten to get dressed:
Sometimes she’s fully clothed and actually makes an effort to save her horny one-horned friend:
But I’ve never seen an instance of the unicorn using its horn (even a long and pointy one as in the picture above) to spear his attackers. Does this mean the unicorn has a victim mentality?
I turn once again to The Medieval Bestiary (http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast140.htm), which explains as follows:
The unicorn is fierce, strong and swift, and no hunter can catch it. To tame the beast so it can be captured, a virgin girl is placed in its path. The unicorn, seeing the maiden, comes to her and puts its head in her lap and falls asleep. The hunters can then easily capture or kill it. Some accounts say the girl must bare her breast and allow the unicorn to suckle.
The unicorn signifies Christ, who was made incarnate in Mary’s womb, was captured by the Jews, and was put to death. The unicorn’s fierce wildness shows the inability of hell to hold Christ. The single horn represents the unity of God and Christ. The small size of the unicorn is a symbol of Christ’s humility in becoming human.
Well, when you put it that way… guess these ones qualify as metaphorical murders only.
What, however, of this poor unsuspecting antelope?
Or this mama monkey, vainly climbing a rock to save her babies?
Or this lion, being pursued by a posse with pitchforks?
Even this snail isn’t safe (to the squirrel’s horror):
Maybe that’s why this bunny is watching his back…
…smart move, bunny. Don’t be dazzled by the gold and abundant flora: it’s a perilous world in the margins…