“One early ninth-century manuscript from the abbey of St-Denis can be partially dated from a curious feature in its decoration. [To the right is] a copy of Cassiodorus’s commentary on the Psalms made at St-Denis in the style associated with Abbot Fardulphus (793-806). One of its big initials includes several imaginary monsters and a surprisingly accurate sketch of the head of an Indian elephant. Medieval artists knew about ivory, but not many had seen elephants. This illuminator probably knew the elephant which was presented to Charlemange by caliph Haroun-al-Rachid in the year 802. The elephant’s name was Abulabaz and it lived until 810. Therefore the Cassiodorus manuscript cannot be earlier than 802. For all we know Abulabaz’s tusks survive in some of the magnificent Carolingian ivory book-covers which decorated the grandest Gospel Books” (De Hamel, 50-51).
“Abulabaz died in 810, and knowledge of elephants slipped back into folk memory, like dragons and mermaids. This elephant, in the First Bible of Charles the Bald, Tours, must be based on a description rather than on first-hand experience. The tusks figure clearly, for ivory was a precious comodity.”
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I love elephants.