VILLARD DE HONNECOURT
(b. ca. 1200, Picardy, d. ca. 1250)

Lion drawn from life

c. 1235
Pen drawing on parchment, 24 x 16 cm
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

A well-known Gothic image, often thought to exemplify the new relationship to nature, is the drawing of a lion from the model book of Villard de Honnecourt. On it the artist has proudly inscribed "note well that this was drawn from life". The word used for drawn is "contrefait", which at that time had some of the associations of our term counterfeit - the production of something false. In the Gothic era artist did not lay claim to a personal vision or perception. An artist was a maker, an artisan.

Villard was not, in fact, sketching from life, since this lion-taming narrative was a commonplace found in medieval encyclopedias. Like the ornamental lion's head, which he adds in the top corner, this depiction relates more to earlier lions in art than to any actual animal the artist might have seen. What is important, however, even if Villard did not draw the lion from life, is that he added the inscription saying that he did. It suggested that there were things in the world worth recording and that the image-maker could vouch for their appearance. Precisely because medieval artists did not copy the world before their eyes, Villard had to add this text to authenticate his presence before something, just as, in the rest of the album, images of buildings like Laon cathedral have inscriptions to attest to his having seen them, even though many scholars believe he was copying them from other drawings.