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  Bestial Beauties

Images courtesy of Princeton University Press

Opening image: In a Scythian wood carving from the fourth to sixth century B.C., a griffin clutches in its jaws the head of a stag. The carving exemplifies the technical mastery of its creators.
(State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.)
Fantastic beasts span the history of human artistic expression. About 17,000 years ago, someone painted on a wall of a Lascaux cave an equine beast bearing a single horn, the earliest known representation of a unicorn. The recent cinematic Lord of the Rings trilogy featured computer-generated wolfish creatures called wargs that were big enough to bring down a horse, war elephants 50 feet at the shoulder with four immense tusks, and immense dragon-like flying creatures that carried the evil Ringwraiths into battle. Our imaginations seem now as they have always been — populated by creatures not found in nature, but lurking in our subconscious.

Christian Delacampagne, professor of 20th-century French literature in the Krieger School's Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, has examined 50 centuries of art, searching for griffins, dragons, manticores, hydras, chimeras, centaurs, mermaids, harpies, phoenixes, and sphinxes. He and his wife, Ariane, a translator and photographer, have written Here Be Dragons: A Fantastic Bestiary (Princeton University Press).

"I have always been interested in the study of religions, because I perceive religion as a fascinating phenomenon from an anthropological point of view," says Delacampagne. "This is where my interest in imaginary animals comes from. Mythical animals have always existed and continue to exist in world art, and they usually have a religious meaning."

On the pages of Here Be Dragons, his zoology of the human imagination spans millennia and cultures. A Cambodian vulture-man hybrid guards a temple. Winged horses carry armored knights to the rescue of naked maidens. Dragons rendered by a second-millennium B.C. Bactrian silversmith, the 15th-century Italian painter Paolo Uccello, and poet and artist William Blake document the long history of imagined great worms and fell beasts.

"The most difficult part of the job was gathering iconographic information about all kinds of mythical animals from all over the world," says Delacampagne. "We strived to cover all major civilizations in human history from ancient times to the present day. I hope we have provided new insights for understanding this complicated and sometimes sophisticated symbolism."
— Dale Keiger


Marco Polo didn't actually see dragons, but that didn't stand in the way of their depiction in a 15th-century manuscript of his Book of Marvels.
(Bibliothéque Nationale de France, Paris.)

Dragon as pet: "Alizon the Cantankerous and Her Dragon," a 17th-century pen-and-watercolor illustration by French illustrator and ballet set designer Daniel Rabel.
(Musée du Louvre, Paris.)

Sumerians appear to have invented the dragon, says Delacampagne. During ensuing centuries it became ubiquitous in world art and mythology. This example is a pen-and-watercolor drawing from 1585, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
(Gabinetto dei Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence.)

This Grand'Goule, a winged serpent with claws and a scorpion's tail, devoured nuns who entered underground chambers of the local monastery. Or so the story went in Poitiers, France, where this wood sculpture was carried in local processions until 1789, to appease the beast.
(Musée Sainte-Croix, Poitiers.)

Images of unicorns precede written history by thousands of years. The unicorn above attends a lady in a 15th-century French-Belgian tapestry.
(Musée National du Moyen Âge-Cluny, Paris.)

Constructed from wood, dried fish skin, eel teeth, and an actual fish tail, this object was exhibited as a "siren corpse" in European salons and popular fairs in the 17th and 18th centuries.
(Charles-Edouard Duffon, Témoin Gallery, Geneva.)

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