Magpie in the Bestiary of Ann Walsh

Dublin Core


Magpie in the Bestiary of Ann Walsh




The above image is a medieval depiction of a magpie, from the Bestiary of Ann Walsh (England, 15th century). The stark contrasts between this rendition and that of Kircher illustrate the evolution in depiction of this animal over time, and highlight the differences in the agendas of the two artists.

The magpie in this fifteenth century English bestiary is dark, two-dimensional, and heavily taloned. Its head and sinewy neck protrudes off from its body towards the top-right of the illustration, and its wings are half-folded awkwardly along its back. Its talons—one planted on the base of the illustration, one jutting forwards beneath the head—are long (nearly the size of its head) and hooked, with an indeterminate number of digits. The text of the bestiary comes from the 7th century Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, who described the magpie as “a garrulous bird that hangs in the branches of trees, sounding forth.” Earlier sources, such as Pliny the Elder, describe the bird as a clever, dexterous animal whose voice was often mistaken for a human’s. The illustrator of this bestiary sought to emphasize these attributes, giving the bestiary’s magpie an anthropomorphic neck and long, useful talons. These characteristics would not have been based on empirical observation, but rather on collective wisdom passed down through the centuries. Thus, the medieval bestiary’s rendition is best understood as a caricature rather than a faithful work of realism.

Athanasius Kircher had a very different agenda for his engravings. He was not interested in flat depictions that emphasized certain traits, but rather wanted to give as as accurate a rendition of the animals on the Arca Noë as possible. Thus, Kircher’s magpie is fully fleshed out, three-dimensional, and realistically proportionate. His magpie is practically devoid of a neck, its talon are reasonably sized and clearly four-pronged, and its wings are folded gracefully against its sides. It is perched on a thin branch with little tufts of leaves, giving his engraving an added sense of realism. Unlike the bestiary’s flat illustration, Kircher’s engraving would have been based on personal observation, or on earlier renditions that were based on actual fieldwork. He drew his sense of proportion and body composition from personal familiarity with the same or similar animals, giving his engraving the appearance of being firmly grounded in empirical observation, which was being emphasized in Kircher’s post-Baconian era. Indeed, Kircher’s engraving is remarkably similar to modern photographs of the same animal, a testimony to his dedication to realism.


Anne Walsh


Bestiarius - Bestiary of Ann Walsh






Bestiary manuscript, 21cm x 13.5cm


bestiary magpie.jpg



Anne Walsh, “Magpie in the Bestiary of Ann Walsh,” The Kircher Project , accessed August 24, 2019,


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