When Marco Polo headed off from Venice, Italy, for the sprawl of Asia in 1271, the inquisitive teenager was on the lookout for wondrous things. One that he found surprised him mightily.
The unicorn he encountered on the island of Sumatra “is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin,” he later told a scribe, who recorded the explorer’s epic, 24-year journey in “The Travels of Marco Polo.” In fact, he continued, “’Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon.”
That’s probably because what Polo had actually seen was a rhinoceros.
Because the traveler had never encountered one of those before, and because the ungainly beast sported a large horn protruding from its head like an elegant unicorn — which he also had never seen but knew about from Bible stories — he put two and two together and came up with five. Polo knew what he was looking for, so he made the world conform to his expectation.
Unicorns proliferate in the first room of “Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World,” a sumptuous exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum. An animal surrogate for Christ’s cleansing purity, unicorns turn up in pictures drawn and painted in the vellum pages of books, carved into the side of an ivory box and the seat of a parade saddle made of bone, woven into a wool and silk tapestry, stained into window glass, hammered into a brass dish, molded to form a ritual water vessel and embroidered into delicate linen cloth.
Not one is passing ugly.
And lest a museum visitor doubt the reality of the marvelous creature represented in all these objects, some dating from nearly 1,000 years ago, a unicorn horn is displayed nearby. An unidentified artisan lavished the horn’s sometimes-spiraling surface with intricate patterns of plants, animals and human figures.
Pattern is repetition and repetition is ritual — which may explain why this strange object is thought to have been used in church processions as a ceremonial staff. Nearly 4 feet long, it was carved in England more than 100 years before Polo set off on his trip.
Closer inspection reveals that, like the rhinoceros case of mistaken identity, this carved tusk actually came from a wholly different beast. Not a unicorn’s horn, it’s the left canine tooth of a narwhal, a type of Arctic porpoise.
Never mind. Many of the unicorns that these medieval artists invented are as wondrous as nature’s gifts.
“Book of Beasts” chronicles the rise of the bestiary, a specific type of manuscript illuminated with pictures of animals both real and imaginary, ordinary and extraordinary, plus its influence on other art until the Renaissance interrupted all the fun. Around 300 were produced, especially in Northern Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. Astoundingly, nearly one-third of the 60 known books have been brought together for this indispensable show.
For every lion there’s a griffin — a lion’s body fused with an eagle’s head, wings and sometimes talons — and for every pelican, a fire-breathing dragon. Bestiaries extolled the glory of the Christian G od through the application of vivid splendor to his creation, whether proved to be real like a lion and pelican or believed to exist in a far-off realm like the griffin and unicorn. That meant making art that would be equally as splendid, to convey appropriate power.
The show’s second section opens with a wallop.
The Aberdeen Bestiary, made circa 1200, is regarded by many scholars the greatest one of all. Certainly, it is an eye-boggling extravagance. Getty curator Elizabeth Morrison and assistant curator Larisa Grollemond, who organized the exhibition after nearly a decade’s research, chose to display the book opened at a pivotal place.
The spectacular folio on the left shows Christ in majesty, enthroned in an abstract eternity of glistening, polished gold. So much gold that the vellum page looks physically heavy.
He is held aloft by angels and, at the corners, the four evangelists. Matthew is represented as an angel, then Mark, Luke and John by their similarly winged animal symbols of lion, ox and eagle.
The exaltation of the relationship between G od and nature is further stressed by the stunning painting on the opposite page. Its story comes from the Book of Genesis. Adam, the first man, is shown naming the animals.
Adam’s right hand is raised in blessing, his left palm lowered and held upright in a welcoming, come-hither gesture. Boxy rectilinear compartments hold an array of gently rounded, boldly outlined creatures painted in saturated colors, starting at the top with a crimson lion — king of the beasts.
The animal symbolism can get pretty complicated. Mythology of the time, according to a nearby label, said that the cubs of a lioness were born dead; after three days, the lion would breathe life into them. The legend has at least two implications, both inferring nature’s sacred source.
Genesis asserts that God “breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” — the lone biblical text that identifies when human life begins. The lion’s tale also adds a twist of resurrection, since the cubs arise only after a three-day “death.”
The show then fans out beyond illuminated manuscripts to encompass the bestiary’s role in establishing a pervasive visual vocabulary in the medieval world. Its words and pictures functioned as a kind of moral Christian guidebook. The allegorical range is marvelous in tapestries, metalwork, architectural fragments (painted ceiling panels, carved column capitals), game boards and other medieval objects of courtly and monastic life.
Eventually, the story unravels. Science intervenes.
Christian allegory wanes as natural history emerges during the Renaissance, slowly draining mystical symbolism and replacing it with the visual power of direct observation. If you haven’t actually seen a unicorn, better not to carve or paint one except in the spirit of lively play.
That shift in emphasis doesn’t banish imagination. “A Hare in the Forest,” the Getty’s own captivating 1585 Hans Hoffmann panel painting, renders every fine, short hair of the animal’s fur in excruciating detail. But the bunny, inspired by a famous Albrecht Dürer watercolor, is placed within a hyper-real woodland. Botanists have explained that only in art, not nature, could such a diverse array of plant life occupy a single locale.
If only the exhibition had also ended there. Unfortunately, there’s one more room to go, and it misfires.
Seventeen minor specimens of Modern and contemporary art by the likes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and Damien Hirst suddenly catapult us almost 300 years into the future. The exhibition’s closing narrative is disjunctive. What happened between the 17th and 20th centuries is anyone’s guess.
To cite one hapless example, Hirst’s sculpture of a hefty unicorn skull, crafted from solid gold and silver and made in 2010 for a lavish exhibition in Polo’s hometown of Venice, doesn’t really occupy “the sometimes blurry line between reality and fantasy” — the bizarre claim in the show’s large (and largely impeccable) catalog. The nihilistic gewgaw, vacuous and vulgar, instead embodies the mythos that can be manufactured in a crude market-culture that primarily values art as a luxury asset.
That’s a unicorn of a different color.
Art museums now seem to feel that topical relevance is somehow served by appending recent art to exhibitions otherwise anchored in a historical epoch. Here, reducing the medieval bestiary to a contemporary footnote makes for a listless conclusion to an otherwise strong and compelling show.
When: Through Aug. 18; closed Mondays
Info: (310) 440-7300, www.getty.edu