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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!