10 Fantastic Facts about BEASTS!

Did you think beasts only existed on film or in fairy tales? Think again! The new BEASTS! exhibition in our Open Treasure Collections Gallery showcases some of the the weird and wonderful beasts and monsters which have fascinated people from earliest times through the Cathedral’s Collections and objects on loan from other institutions.

Here are some fantastic facts about some of the objects you can see on display…

  1. Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (History of the Animals) is said to mark the beginning of the modern science of zoology. Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner’s published Historiae Annimalium between 1551 and 1558 in a five volume compendium, and tried to collect everything that had ever been written about animals including everything from crocodiles to unicorns! On display are two copies of the Historiae Animalium from 1617-1621.
  2. Johannes Jonstonus’s Historiae Naturalis (1657) became one of the most successful and influential natural history books of the 17th and 18th centuries. Perhaps the last great zoological encyclopedia of the Renaissance, one of the reasons for its popularity was the quality and range of its illustrations. Myth and reality are still combined, however: the pages displayed in Open Treasure feature a phoenix, pelican, harpy and griffin.
  3. Thomas Bewick published A General History of Quadrupeds in 1790. Bewick was unhappy with previously existing illustrated books and wanted to create a more accurate book by using illustrations drawn from life. Visitors to BEASTS! can see Bewick’s exquisite illustrations on display in the Collections Gallery.
  4. Also on display are several pieces of ‘evidence’ for the existence of various beasts, including a unicorn’s horn on loan from Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. Nowadays we know this horn is a narwhal’s tooth, but in medieval western Europe people really believed in unicorns. The spiral horn of these graceful creatures was believed to have powers of healing and neutralising any poison.
  5. People today know that elephants are real, but in medieval England elephants were creatures of legend. On display in the exhibition is an elephant’s tooth from Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. It was said that elephants would stamp on the head of a serpent or crocodile as they were believed to be mortal enemies.
  6. Griffins were a fierce mythical creature with the body, tail and back legs of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle and eagle’s talons on its front of feet. Like many other beasts they were believed to have special powers. Only a very holy person could obtain the claw of a griffin, and it is believed that the griffin claw currently on display in BEASTS! may have been gifted to St Cuthbert’s Shrine.
  7. Along with the griffin’s claw on loan from The British Museum, visitors can see griffin’s eggs on loan from Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. The Griffin’s Claw is really the horn of an Ibex (Alpine wild goat), whilst the griffin’s eggs are probably ostrich eggs.
  8. Many manuscripts from the Cathedral’s Collection are richly decorated with beasts and other decorations of various kinds. One of the manuscripts on display is Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (Theological Summary) part 1, a great work of instruction for theology students in the 13th and 14th centuries. The students set to study this volume were perhaps easily and frequently distracted, as many of its pages feature sketches and doodles, including some highly imaginative beasts. The page displayed features a dragon with an arrow-shaped tongue, and a bird eating a snake or eel.
  9. Beasts and fantastic creatures were seen also in the night sky among the stars. On display are pages from the Medicine, the Calendar, and Astronomy, a 12th-century a compendium of scientific procedures which covers everything from medicinal procedures to tables on astronomy.
  10. Visitors to BEASTS! can also see the inkwell used by Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone. Durham Cathedral was used one of the sites used to bring Hogwarts to life in the Harry Potter movies. This inkwell from the Cathedral’s Collections once belonged to Bishop Lightfoot, Bishop of Durham during the nineteenth-century.

BEASTS! will be on display in Open Treasure until Saturday 10 June.

Open Treasure is open Monday to Saturday from 10.00am – 5.00pm (last entry 4.00pm) and Sundays from 12.30pm – 5.00pm (last entry 4.00pm).

Tickets: £2.50 – £7.50 (under 5s free) available from www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/open-treasure and from the Visitor Desk in the Cathedral.

Open Treasure annual passes are also available so you’ll never have to miss an Open Treasure exhibition!

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Ten Reasons to Vote for Durham Cathedral as Heritage Site of the Year

Bill Bryson has nominated Durham Cathedral as Heritage Site of the Year in the BBC Countryfile Magazine Awards 2017 and we need your votes!

In nominating Durham Cathedral for this award, Bill Bryson described it as ‘one of the supreme achievements of the architectural world‘ and a wonder to behold from every possible vantage point, inside and out’. He also famously once described Durham Cathedral as ‘the best Cathedral on planet earth’!

But if you still need convincing, here are ten reasons why you should vote for Durham Cathedral as Heritage Site of the Year:

  1. #SpiritualHeritage – Durham Cathedral has been a place of worship for almost one thousand years. It is the resting place of two of the North’s best-loved saints, St Cuthbert and St Bede, and is still a living place of worship with at least three services daily.
  2. #MusicalHeritage – Durham Cathedral’s musical heritage dates back to the 11th century and since 1416 the Cathedral Choir has been accompanied by a team of choristers. You can hear them singing Evensong in the Cathedral most days and there’s nothing more uplifting than hearing this incredible building filled with the sound of music!
  3. #NaturalHeritage – Durham Cathedral is surrounded by woodlands and riverbanks. This beautiful space at the heart of Durham City was created as part of a planned 18th-century landscape but is now open for everyone to enjoy, a haven for wildlife offering spectacular views of the Durham UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  4. #LiteraryHeritage – Durham Cathedral Library dates back to the library of the monastery founded by St Aidan on Lindisfarne in 635AD. It is now the largest in-situ medieval library in the UK with manuscripts dating from the 6th century onwards and 30,000 early printed books!
  5. #ArchitecturalHeritage – Durham Cathedral is renowned as one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe and boasts the world’s first known example of a structural pointed arch, which paved the way for the development of Gothic architecture in Europe.
  6. #MonasticHeritage – One of few places to survive the Reformation intact, Durham Cathedral now boasts the most intact surviving set of medieval monastic buildings in the UK. These incredible spaces are now part of Open Treasure, including the UK’S best-preserved monastic dormitory with its fourteenth-century oak-beamed ceiling and the stunning Great Kitchen, one of only two surviving monastic kitchens in the UK.
  7. #ArtisticHeritage – Durham Cathedral is home to many pieces of modern artwork by artists including Paula Rego, Fenwick Lawson, Colin Wilbourn and Kirill Sokolov. The Cathedral continues to exhibit the work of local artists including Judy Hurst and the late Norman Wade.
  8. #GlobalHeritage – Durham Cathedral is part of the Durham UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the first World Heritage Sites to be inscribed by UNESCO in 1986 and one of only two World Heritage Sites in the UK to include a Cathedral!
  9. #LivingHeritage – The heritage of Durham Cathedral is not confined to the past. Durham Cathedral is a place of living heritage that many of us call home, with annual events celebrating the vibrant culture of the region of Durham from the Miners’ Festival Service to Durham BRASS Festival.
  10. #YourHeritage – Most importantly, the heritage of Durham Cathedral is #yourheritage and we’d love to hear what makes Durham Cathedral special to you! Please share your stories with us on Facebook and Twitter before 28 February using the hashtag #yourcathedral to celebrate your heritage.

To vote for Durham Cathedral in the BBC Countryfile Magazine Awards, please visit www.countryfile.com/article/heritage-site-year before 28 February and cast your vote!