Medieval artists possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the creatures they imagined.
Every culture and civilization throughout history, including our own, has its monsters. The origins of medieval monsters often derived from ancient writers like Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79), who wrote of strange creatures and races of humans living on the outer margins of the known world. Medieval authors appropriated and adapted these images, while philosopher Saint Augustine referenced their existence and medieval theologians taught that they were part of God’s divine plan.
Medieval artists possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of such creatures, some of which may still be familiar to us, namely dragons, harpies, griffins, basilisks, and sirens. These also included monsters now largely forgotten, alien, and unknown: cynocephali, dogheaded men; sciapods, creatures with one giant foot; blemmyes, headless men with their faces in their chests; and panotii, creatures with giant ears. Monsters are ever-present in medieval art, even perching atop stone capitals of Romanesque cloisters or lurking within sculpted portals of Gothic cathedrals. Appearing across media—in sculpture, metalwork, ivory, and textiles—they are especially evident within the margins and miniatures of illuminated medieval manuscripts.
Organized by the Morgan Library & Museum, the groundbreaking exhibition Medieval Monsters investigates this subject for the first time, through the pages of some 60 illuminated manuscripts from the Morgan’s renowned collection. The manuscripts, covering devotional, liturgical, and secular functions, date from the 800s to the late 1500s. Some of these sumptuously decorated works were illuminated by notable artists, such as Jean Poyer and Simon Bening, or belonged to well-known patrons, including Henry VIII of England, Anne of Brittany, Yolande de Soissons, and Catherine of Cleves. Exploring the complex social role of monsters in the Middle Ages, the exhibition prompts viewers to consider the function of these creatures in medieval art, how they were received by their intended viewer, and how they served as a way of engaging with the foreign, the unknown, and the supernatural.
The Morgan’s manuscripts are complemented by works drawn from the CMA’s rich collections, including sculpture, prints, and illuminated manuscripts. The exhibition explores at the outset the origins of monsters in the ancient world and finishes with an examination of monstrous images as a nexus for humor, satire, warning, and inspiration. Within the pages of illuminated manuscripts, these figures functioned in contexts that ranged from knightly tales to the margins of devotional books, in which a variety of odd creatures acted in ways that are sometimes familiar, sometimes strange, and sometimes rude.
Medieval Monsters leads the visitor through three sections. The first, “Terrors,” explores how these creatures enhanced the aura of those who held power, usually men hailing from the nobility and clergy. The objects reveal how monstrous images could be used to enforce compliance in society and to discourage dissent by stoking fear. It is in this section that we meet heroic saints and angels battling the forces of evil, such as dragons and demons. It is here that we encounter fearsome hellmouths illustrating the fate of those who spurn a righteous life.
Section two, “Aliens,” takes a different approach to the monstrous by defining it as a deep sense of difference or otherness. The works demonstrate how marginalized groups in European society, such as Jews, Muslims, women (whose gender was believed to bear the sin of Eve), the poor, and the disabled, were further alienated by being demonized as monstrous. The romanticized perception of the Middle Ages, featuring chivalrous knights, castles, and monks copying sacred texts within the confines of an ivy-covered cloister, is largely a creation of the 19th century. Here this image is challenged. Although responsible for exquisite art and stunning architecture, as well as institutions like universities, constitutions, and parliaments, the Middle Ages was not a tolerant or pluralistic era. This section exposes medieval racial stereotypes, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, illustrated through monstrous depictions of certain people deemed outside the mainstream.
Section three, “Wonders,” considers one of the most fascinating aspects of monsters: their ability to inspire a deep sense of marvel, awe, and mystery. Monsters were not always fearsome or repulsive creatures, but instead could take the form of fabled beasts like centaurs, griffins, giants, and unicorns. The beasts in this section may not necessarily possess codified meanings or connotations, yet through their strange beauty or frightful abnormality they inspire a sense of marvel. Used in contemplative, ornamental, or entertaining settings, this class of monsters had the potential to bring joy and even laughter to a somber world.
More than mere figments of the imagination, monsters have played an important role throughout the history of Western civilization. The ubiquity and the variety of monstrosities in the art of the Middle Ages attest to their cultural importance and varied purpose. For the medieval mind, monsters provided important testimony to the active intervention of the divine in this world.