Two Bestiaries

The Phoenix

Take a few hours and browse through the Aberdeen Bestiary. The Aberdeen Bestiary Project has done a magnificent job in presenting this treasure of the University of (you guessed it) Aberdeen. Full color, legible pictures of each page with transcriptions, translations, and commentary are given. It’s a great site and a fine example of what should be done with every manuscript before they fleck away into the dust of forgotten questions and best intentions.

Our second bestiary is of the printed species. One of my favorite books, its source a bibliophile’s dream though it is of far more recent origin that the above bestiary, is D. M. Dooling’s abridged and translated edition of Louis Charbonneau-Lassay’s The Bestiary of Christ (Parabola Books, 1991). (It is out of print, but you might find copies here.) The history of this beautiful volume is as follows:

Le Bestiaire du Christ was originally a book of a thousand pages and over a thousand of the author’s woodcuts. It was published in Brussels just after the outbreak of the Second World War: one of four volumes planned by Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, all pursuing his interest in religious symbolism. The others were Le Floraire du Christ, Le Vulnéraire du Christ, and Le Lapidaire du Christ. All the material was gathered for them, but he did not live to finish and publish any of the three. Le Bestiaire alone has survived, and barely. The firm of Desclée, De Brouwer et Cie. published it in a limited edition of five hundred copies, almost all of which, along with the woodblocks for the illustrations, were lost when a bomb set fire to the warehouse where they were stored. Four other printings of five hundred copies each were printed in Milan from surviving copies of the first edition. That is the entire publishing history of this extraordinary book until its present appearance.

Dooling was fortunate enough to have access to one of the extremely rare first editions of Le Bestiaire du Christ in preparing the volume, which though an abridgment, is still a sizable one of more than 460 pages. This Parabola edition is a beauty in itself. The hardback, which is what I have, is of a satisfying heft, on acid-free paper, with sewn bindings. The creamy, faintly textured paper is a delight to the hands as well as the eyes.

I tend to drop into it now and again, like visiting an old and very learnèd friend with an old-fashioned cabinet of curiosities. Even in translation, there is an Old World charm to the phrasing (Monsieur Charbonneau-Lassy was born in 1871, after all), bringing gracefully to the mind a recollection of a world now sadly passed; for instance:

The Frog—Here is another humble member of God’s family whose name many Westerners will be surprised to see among those whom the reverence of the first Christian centuries linked with the personal symbolism of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Charbonneau-Lassay was a lifelong Roman Catholic believer, and was even a novitiate in an eventually defunct order. During life he was an archaeologist and historian, yet he is known, solely now, for Le Bestiaire du Christ. As Dooling says in the Foreward (p. ii), “He led one of those remarkable unremarkable lives that are probably the reason why God does not lose patience entirely with the human race.” Noble praise, nobly phrased.

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3 Responses to Two Bestiaries

  1. Alfredo Andrade says:

    I just received today my copy of “Le Bestiaire du Christ” reedited by Albin Michel. You can find it at Amazon.fr.
    This is a complete edition which as you say has been unavailable in it’s original form for years.
    thank you for you site.

  2. Thank you Mr. Andrade! I’ll pass that information on to another friend who also treasures Le Bestiaire du Christ.

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