Hilariously Inaccurate Depictions of Animals From History

June 11, 2024

A Whale, Unknown Artist, 13th Century

Have you ever wondered what people in the olden days thought animals looked like? Well have we got a surprise for you! Today we're taking a look at the curious and often amusing portrayals of animals found in medieval manuscripts and artworks.

From whimsical creatures to anthropomorphized beings, we're digging into their peculiar appearances in medieval art. Join us as we uncover how limited access to real animals for study, symbolic interpretations rooted in cultural and religious contexts, and a touch of humor and satire have all contributed to the fascinating world of historically inaccurate animal depictions in art.

A Whale, Unknown Artist, 13th Century

Set sail for the high seas of the 13th century, and you might just glimpse this particularly emerald-hued 'whale', as conjured by an artist whose zoological guide was surely a book of myths. More akin to a playful puppy with fins than the mammoth cetaceans we're familiar with, this creature flaunts a scaly verdancy that would make any dragon envious. Its gaping maw seems less threatening and more surprised, as if it’s just heard the latest sea shanty gossip. With a duo of sailors nonchalantly navigating atop its back, this rendering is less an accurate portrayal and more a seafarer's tall tale come to life, a whimsical narrative where the whale plays the role of both beast and vessel.

A Hippopotamus, Jacob van Maerlant, c. 1350

A Hippopotamus, Jacob van Maerlant, c. 1350

In Jacob van Maerlant's depiction from around 1350, we encounter a rather peculiar portrayal of a hippopotamus. Rather than the robust and hefty creature we know today, this rendition presents a whimsical interpretation. The hippo appears more akin to a plump pig, with stout legs and a round, protruding belly. Its snout is elongated, resembling that of a horse, and its eyes carry an expression of gentle curiosity. Van Maerlant's artistic license likely stems from limited firsthand encounters with these massive mammals, resulting in a charmingly inaccurate yet endearing representation of the creature.