What Animals Were Really on Noah’s Ark?

Cows, elephants, giraffes … and is that a unicorn wandering the deck of Noah’s ark in this oil painting done by Simon de Myle in 1570? The Bible left it open to artists and scientists alike to imagine which animals Noah might have saved—and medieval artists in particular were prone to fanciful depictions like unicorns and dragon-like creatures. Photograph Courtesy Bridgeman Images

By Erin Blakemore at National Geographic: In the beginning, there were two—animals. The Bible only specified two—a raven and a dove—among the multitudes it said were aboard Noah’s ark (depicted above). So how did we get to unicorns and literally every animal we could think of? For centuries artists have filled in the gaps with both fantastic tales and emerging science…

It’s a complicated question given the Bible’s silence on the species involved. Just two animals are mentioned by name in the tale—a dove and a raven, which Noah sent to find out if the flood had died down enough to make Earth habitable yet.

But that hasn’t stopped artists and scientists from making plenty of colorful—and sometimes ludicrous—guesses about the animals that made it onto the ark. Their theories ultimately reveal more about the eras in which they lived and the steady progress of scientific discovery than that ark itself.

Medieval renderings of Noah’s ark

Speculation about the animals of the ark is nearly as old as the Bible itself, and the earliest surviving image of a biblical narrative, cast on a third-century A.D. coin, depicts Noah’s ark. Made in what is now Turkey, the bronze shows the ark and two birds thought to reference the dove that Noah sent to find out if Earth had dried.

“We’re naturally drawn to stories about animals,” says Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and curator of a variety of exhibitions about medieval animal illustrations.

Medieval minds in particular were fascinated by the natural world and sought to attach religious importance to every aspect of the Noah story, from the symbolism of the church-like ark to Noah’s supposed discrimination between pure and impure animals aboard his ship. Medieval artists and scientists often compiled lists of these animals—and colorful stories that tied into the Noah narrative—in bestiaries, or books with moral messages and plenty of pictures.

“The Noah’s ark story has the added advantage of having such drama,” Morrison says. “It’s like the end of the world—except you get to save animals.”

As a result, illuminated texts and medieval paintings burst with imaginative depictions of animal life among sea and land-dwelling creatures thought to have been saved on the biblical boat.

Cows and giraffes and … unicorns?

But which animals specifically did medieval artists depict? European artists with little knowledge of the breadth of global wildlife, included animals that would have been familiar from everyday life. For example, the Old English Hexateuch, an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript, shows cows, goats, and pigs—common European domesticated animals—leaving the ark in twos.

More exotic animals depicted in other manuscripts, though, indicate medieval Europe’s increased contact with the rest of the world, first through trade and then through international exploration.

Fifteenth-century carvers at the Norwich Cathedral in England depicted Noah with not just cattle and birds, but a monkey—an animal that, though not native to northern climes, would have been familiar due to the menageries and court entertainments of the time. Giraffes, peacocks, and lions were also depicted in ark imagery of the era.

More here.