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Collections | Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts

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Sawfish and Ship
Bestiary, in Latin. England, probably Lincoln, before 1187
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1902; MS M.81, fol. 69
See CORSAIR catalog record for this item »

The medieval Book of Beasts, a pseudoscientific treatise interspersed with moralizations on animals' habits, was adapted from the Physiologus, a Greek text that had been translated into Latin by the fifth century. Illustrated versions with line drawings appeared in large numbers by the twelfth century, but the Morgan copy is one of the first with fully painted pictures. Here a sawfish (called serra in Latin), having seen a sailboat, starts to outfly it but cannot keep up the effort. The boat symbolizes the righteous, who are firm in their faith; the sawfish, those who cannot keep up good works. The moral: You don't get anywhere by starting, but by pressing on.

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Background images: Photography by Todd Eberle unless otherwise noted. © 2006 Todd Eberle.