Medieval Menagerie: Elephants

Elephants in Medieval manuscripts were depicted with supernatural strength and size.  In Medieval bestiaries, the elephants was a moral symbol of kindness towards others.  The archenemies of the elephant were often unicorns and serpents.  Elephants were depicted in battle with the unicorn, who could fatally wound the pachyderm with its horn.  Serpents were dangerous enemies of the elephant, often lying in wait in order to coil itself around the elephant to suffocate it.  Once vanquished, the serpent would drink the blood of the elephant for warmth.

A serpent extends its tongue towards a trio of elephants.  The mother has submerged herself with her offspring beneath the waters for protection.  From Bestiary, Northern Italy, ca. 1290, MS M.459, f.21r, Morgan Library.

Serpent and three elephants. Bestiary, Northern Italy, ca. 1290, MS M.459, f.21r, Morgan Library.

This 16th century Cretan ink drawing of an elephant with a trumpet-like trunk:

Unknown An Elephant, 1510 - 1520, Pen and red lead and iron gall inks, watercolors, tempera colors, and gold paint on paper bound between wood boards covered with probably original brown calf Leaf: 21.7 × 15.6 cm (8 9/16 × 6 1/8 in.), Ms. Ludwig XV 2, fol. 5 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Unknown.  An Elephant, 1510 – 1520, Pen and red lead and iron gall inks, watercolors, tempera colors, and gold paint on paper bound between wood boards covered with probably original brown calf. Leaf: 21.7 × 15.6 cm (8 9/16 × 6 1/8 in.), Ms. Ludwig XV 2, fol. 5. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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