For illustrators in medieval Europe, depicting animals like elephants that they’d never set eyes on was a key part of their task to shape the morality of humankind.
What mattered most was what such creatures represented in Christian spiritual terms—and so a lion might represent the virtues of strength and courage, while a snake and its venom could represent sin.
And among the earliest medieval European representations of fantastic beasts were elephants. Their bond with their solitary children represented devotion, while stories of elephants taking care to be gentle around smaller animals symbolized kindness to others. Elephants were also said to represent the spiritual redemption of Jesus Christ, possibly because they had the strength to easily lift a person out of sin.
The problem was, however, that few artists in medieval Europe had ever seen a real elephant—instead they created an astonishing variety of fabulous pachyderms that still fascinates today.
Giant dragon fighters
Elephants were the largest of all animals in God’s menagerie. They were said to be the mortal enemies of dragons—just as elephants represented Christ, dragons represented the devil—and several medieval illustrations showed elephants giving birth in lakes, so that dragons could not seize their babies.
Elephants first appeared in Europe with invading armies as far back as 280 B.C., when the Hellenistic king Pyrrhus brought 20 along for his failed invasion of Italy. The Carthaginian general Hannibal famously followed up with 37 war elephants that he marched across the Alps decades later during the Second Punic War, from 218 to 201 B.C.
By the time of the Roman Empire, elephants from both North Africa and India were regularly brought to the capital, sometimes as war animals but often for parades and circuses; they also frequently appeared on Roman coins.
After the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D., however, elephants and their first-hand witnesses all but disappeared in Europe, although some made very rare appearances in later centuries as gifts to kings and popes.
As a result, later medieval illustrators—including cloistered monks—had very little to go on.
“Since there was no real knowledge of how this animal actually looked, illustrators had to rely on oral and written transmissions to morphologically reconstruct the elephant, thus reinventing an actual existing creature,” says the German artist Uli Westphal.
Westphal has researched medieval depictions of elephants, publishing an artwork that shows dozens of weird beasts purporting to represent elephants, including a dragon-like creature with a trumpet on its face; something huge and vaguely fish-like with legs and tusks; and several deer and horses with elaborate trunk-like noses.
Westphal’s research has also documented “clusters” of medieval elephant illustrations that he’s determined derive from a single portrayal, which may have represented an anatomically correct elephant—or a wholly imagined one.
These extraordinary depictions recall the ancient story—said to be an early Buddhist parable—of a group of blind men encountering an elephant and judging its nature after touching a single pachyderm body part: “like a wall,” says one, touching its side; “like a rope,” says another, seizing its tail; “like a snake” says a third, grabbing its trunk.
The biblical story of Eleazar Avaran is a particularly rich source of medieval illustrations of elephants.
Eleazar was a brother of Judas Maccabee who, during the Maccabean Revolt around 165 B.C., is said to have killed an enemy war elephant in battle by sliding underneath and stabbing it with his spear; the elephant then collapsed on the warrior, crushing him to death.
Eleazar’s story in the First Book of Maccabees became linked with the concept of Christian martyrdom, so it was often depicted in medieval Christian manuscripts, according to historian Henry Abramson of New York’s Touro University.
It seems, however, that none of these medieval artists had ever seen a real elephant; nor could they quite imagine how anyone could easily slide underneath one.
As a result, many of the imaginary elephants shown alongside Christian accounts of Eleazar are among the most extraordinary medieval depictions of the pachyderm—one a bit like a horse, another like a huge dog, another like a serpentine cat with a trunk.
In every case, the elephant bears on its back an enormous fort-like construction filled with fighters—a fanciful depiction of a howdah for archers—and the warrior Eleazar lying beneath it.
“I think the one that I enjoy the most is one that reminds me of Dr. Seuss,” Abramson shares. “It’s got a kind of trumpet-like nose, with ripples along the trunk.”
Such imaginary elephants proved resilient even in the face of genuine descriptions of the real animals.
During the course of his research, Westphal discovered that even when medieval illustrators made roughly accurate depictions of elephants—perhaps from a rare first-hand description—they often lapsed back into portraying pachyderms with more fantastical characteristics.
“It didn’t really matter what the elephants looked like,” Westphal says. “It was more about their meaning.”