AI reinterprets the bestiaries of the Middle Ages

Are you a die-hard fan of Harry Potter? Are you curious to know the origins of magical creatures like Fawkes, Dumbledore’s incredible phoenix or the film Fantastic Beasts? Or do you find yourself immersed in the realm of Dungeons & Dragons, unicorns, and spellbinding fantasy? If so, brace yourself to discover the extraordinary genesis of these mythical beings in the legendary realm of Medieval bestiaries. But what exactly are these captivating bestiaries that have mesmerized generations for centuries?

Bestiaries provided information about real animals and mythical creatures that were believed to be real. They were written down in ancient manuscripts, often with vibrant illustrations (called illuminations) that gave life to the information they contained. Now, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is reinterpreting these captivating animals (and even insects) by using cutting-edge technology to give them a new lease of life. Get ready for an adventure like no other as you uncover the secrets that lie behind these mesmerizing beasties!

Unveiling the bestiaries of the Middle Ages

Bestiaries became extremely popular during the Middle Ages and their role was to teach people about the characteristics and appearance of real and mythological animals, as well as to connect them with the Bible and the Christian tradition. For instance, the lion in a bestiary would be compared to Jesus and his divine nature.

The symbology developed in these texts was so well-known that it was later used in different works. For instance, many of these creatures were represented in churches and cathedrals during the Middle Ages.

But that’s not all: they also featured psalters and books of hours (that is, Christian prayer books) thanks to the monks’ imagination, who were the ones that illustrated the manuscripts. The Maastrich Hours, a 14th-century illuminated manuscript, is proof that creative minds have been dreaming up extraordinary animals for centuries. The monk who illuminated it was no stranger to the task, as evidenced by his fantastic creatures like bird nuns and snail men. It’s almost like what we are doing today with AI: combining elements of different animals to create new and incredible beasties. Indeed, this kind of boundary-breaking creativity has been around since time immemorial, inspiring us to go beyond what is physically possible.

Of course, we have modern versions of bestiaries: Toulouse-Lautrec, Leonardo da Vinci, Jorge Luis Borges, or even J.K. Rowling are just some of the authors and artists who have followed this trend. J. R. R. Tolkien also invented his own collection of fantastic creatures in his high fantasy books The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. And even Pokémon, the famous video game, is built like an interactive bestiary. If you like Pokémon and the Middle Ages, have a look at this codex. Isn’t it incredible?

The Medieval Poké Ball

Bestiaries contained many different creatures, both real and mythical. We have chosen just a few animals so you can have a closer look at how bestiaries looked centuries ago, together with their contemporary AI-generated versions. Prepare yourself to enter a world where reality and fantasy merge:


Sometimes monks didn’t actually know the appearance of animals because they haven’t seen them in real life — and, obviously, the internet didn’t exist back then. That’s why we have incredible examples like green and blue lions:

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The lion served as a multifaceted representation of Jesus Christ. Firstly, the lion’s behavior of erasing its tracks finds parallelism in Jesus concealing his own divinity, thus revealing his true nature selectively. Secondly, the lion’s ability to sleep with its eyes open symbolizes Jesus’ physical death on the cross while maintaining his eternal spiritual existence.

How would AI reimagine this incredible green lion?

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In Medieval bestiaries, the phoenix held a significant place as a mythical creature with profound Christian symbolism. Described as a majestic bird, the phoenix was believed to have the remarkable ability to resurrect itself from its own ashes, representing the triumph of life over death. This extraordinary phenomenon was associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, illustrating the Christian belief in Christ’s resurrection and the promise of eternal life. The phoenix was seen as a symbol of Christ’s victory over death and the hope of salvation for believers. Nowadays, it also finds echoes in popular literature, such as in the beloved Harry Potter book series. Do you remember Fawkes?

And here you can have a look at the contemporary version of this mythological bird:

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The unicorn is depicted as a majestic creature, usually as a goat, ass, or horse adorned with a single spiral horn protruding from its forehead. Symbolizing purity, grace, and untamed spirit, the unicorn held a special place in medieval lore. For instance, unicorns were the motif of some of the most well-known Medieval tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn.

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It was believed to possess miraculous powers: its horn, known as an alicorn, was said to have potent healing properties and was highly sought until the 17th century — when authorities decided that unicorns were not real. That’s why many Medieval illustrations show people capturing one of these beasts.

This image represents the hunt of one of those mythical animals, and it is tamed by a virgin: this an allegory of the moment when Christ was captured by the Jews and also Christ’s relationship with Virgin Mary.

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And this is the AI-version of our contemporary bestiary:

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Depicted as serpentine beings with wings and often fiery breath, dragons symbolized the embodiment of evil and chaos. Their presence in these texts served as a vivid warning against the perils of temptation, sin, and the Devil’s influence.

They also highlighted the battle between good and evil. Just as Saint George triumphed over the dragon, representing the victory of righteousness over sin, dragons embodied corrupting forces.

We have recreated a ferocious dragon for our own Freepik bestiary:

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They are not mythical creatures, but who doesn’t like Medieval paintings of cats?

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With an artful stroke, the miniature reveals the cats’ charms: their unrivaled skill in the art of slumber, their uncanny prowess in the noble hunt for mice and birds, and their incredible nocturnal vision that could put even the stars to shame (that’s the reason behind the starry background). As you immerse yourself in this visual feast, take note of the playful flicker of fire, a testament to their love for all things warm and cozy. However, let us not forget the mischievous description by Thomas of Cantimpré, suggesting that cats may occasionally find themselves sporting a singed coat of fur because they are too lazy to move.

And last but not least, these are our AI-generated medieval kitties:

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If this small collection of animals wasn’t enough for you and want to have a closer look at bestiaries, illuminations, and descriptions, the digitized version of the Aberdeen bestiary is a good place to start. And if you want to have a look at bestiaries in person, exhibitions are just what you were looking for.

The rise of AI and its artistic applications

AI has been on the rise in recent years, and its influence continues to grow in fields ranging from healthcare to transportation. In the creative world, AI has been embraced as a way to bring new life to traditional art forms.

Examples of AI-generated artwork include “The Next Rembrandt’’, a painting created through machine learning that was based on Rembrandt’s famous works. In addition, Steve Coulson has created The Bestiary Chronicles, a comic, using Midjourney. It reimagines monsters in an AI-generated universe. Another example is Salvatore Raieli’s bestiary, who devised a modern bestiary that brings Medieval texts to life. Such projects demonstrate the potential of AI for transforming traditional art forms, giving them new life and meaning through innovative use of technology.

AI is continuing to gain traction in the world of art and creativity, offering exciting possibilities for reinterpreting familiar works like Medieval bestiaries. By embracing such tools, artists can create powerful, imaginative pieces that blend human and machine elements.

AI’s journey through Medieval bestiaries

AI is taking a journey through the Middle Ages, and it’s not alone. From bestiaries to illuminated manuscripts to tapestries, AI has been exploring ancient, artistic ways of viewing the world. But training AI models to replicate historical artistic styles is no easy task. AI models must be taught a great deal of information before they can accurately recreate different types of art. In the case of Medieval art, it’s not just about understanding the style, but also replicating the cultural context it was created in. This level of complexity means AI models need to be fine-tuned and carefully monitored to ensure accuracy.

Still, when executed correctly, AI-generated artworks can provide an innovative look into Medieval bestiaries and offer a unique perspective that could not have been achieved in the same way centuries ago. AI has opened up a new realm of exploration into bestiaries and illuminated manuscripts, as well as providing insight into how technology is changing the way we view history.

As AI continues its journey through the Middle Ages, the similarities and differences between Medieval art and AI-generated reimaginations are becoming more evident. On one hand, both styles share common elements such as rich colors and intricate patterns. On the other hand, while Medieval art often used complex symbolism to convey spiritual beliefs, AI-generated artwork pulls inspiration from a variety of sources, including literature and even modern technology.

AI as a tool for modern artists and designers

Modern artists and designers are increasingly incorporating AI into their creative processes, allowing them to explore new perspectives in graphic design. AI technology can help automate tedious tasks, enhance artistic exploration, or even act as a collaborator for the artist, pushing boundaries of what is possible. Much like the Medieval bestiaries used allegory to explain the world around them, modern designers use AI to interpret and comment on the world today.

The possibilities of what AI can do for artists are endless. For example, AI-generated music is already widely used in film and video games; AI has even been employed to create visuals for fashion shows. In graphic design specifically, AI algorithms can open up new avenues of exploration and experimentation by turning text to images. With its ability to generate patterns or images based on certain parameters, AI can assist designers in creating digital artwork that is unique and unexpected. Explore Freepik’s AI image generator to discover the possibilities offered by this type of tool.

The impact of AI on artistic traditions

The influence of artificial intelligence (AI) on artistic traditions sparks intense debate, raising crucial questions about authorship, creativity, and the wider implications for artistic expression. A prime example is found in Medieval bestiaries too, where anonymous copyists often went unrecognized for their contributions. Today, as technology advances, AI can recreate or reinterpret these works, challenging the concept of credit: who should be acknowledged, the human or the machine?

While traditional artists may initially feel threatened by AI advancements, they also offer novel opportunities to preserve and reinterpret artistic traditions. AI equips artists, researchers, curators, and art historians with invaluable tools to explore historical works’ intricacies in ways previously unattainable. But, ultimately, it falls upon today’s artists to explore the possibilities presented by this technology and determine how they wish to incorporate it into their artistic endeavors.

This captivating fusion of ancient art and cutting-edge technology is nothing short of revolutionary. Through the brilliance of AI algorithms, we have unfurled boundless realms of creativity, infusing historical masterpieces with a vibrant new life and shattering conventions of traditional artistic practices. As AI forges ahead in its evolution, the realm of art and design is primed to become a limitless wellspring of inspiration and innovation for future generations. Step into this brave new world and behold the awe-inspiring potential of AI’s artistic prowess!