Did Medieval Artists See Real Dinosaurs?

Brass image of Dinosaurs from 1496 Carlisle Cathedral

If I were trying to etch two sauropod dinosaurs in brass, I would carve something just like this

by Brian Thomas, M.S.

A few years ago I visited Carlisle Cathedral, a very old church in northern England. I’d seen pictures of medieval carvings from this church that looked like dinosaurs. How could this be, unless the artists somehow saw the dinosaurs they carved? Maybe they weren’t dinosaurs after all. I thought a closer look might help me decide.

My wife, Michele, joined me. She persuaded the kind rector to remove the rug that covers the tomb of Bishop Richard Bell, located in the middle of the church floor. Brass decorations on the tomb include the dinosaur look-alike carvings. Even though we said nothing about our specific interest, the rector mentioned that despite what he had heard from others, there were no dinosaurs pictured at his church

A nearby wall plaque identified 1478 as the year Richard Bell became Bishop of Carlisle. Bell died in 1496, when Martin Luther was 13 years old. Who knows what animals may have lived in Europe back then that have since gone extinct?.

Within Bishop Bell’s tomb decorations, we saw true-to-form carvings of normal animals like an eel, a dog, a fish, and a bird. Others were trickier to identify, but none of them looked childish or fanciful. I took a closer look at the two dinosaur look-alikes. The palm of my hand could cover the whole design. It shows two long-tailed creatures with legs that go straight down like dinosaurs’ legs did, rather than angling to the side like those of modern crocodiles. Their long necks intertwine in a reptilian wrestling match. If I were trying to etch two sauropod dinosaurs in brass, I would carve something just like this…

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image credit: Dave and Joliet Lee