NEW YORK—A medieval illuminator painted a giant in a book so tiny that you could potentially grasp it in one hand. But it’s not just any giant. This is a depiction of the saintly Christopher as he warily ferries the Christ child across a river. Legend has it that with each step the giant took, he felt the weight of the child becoming heavier and heavier, until finally he had to ask why. The Christ child, who himself was carrying a globe, answered: “Don’t be surprised, Christopher! You were not only carrying the whole world, you had him who created the world upon your shoulders.”
The medieval artist Simon Bening painted the giant to be barely an inch tall and the child even smaller. This treasure evokes wonderment as it conveys a world within a world, which is within our world as we look upon it. In other words, it represents the world we live in and the universe in a microcosm. But it can also represent an emotional state. The painting of the giant is comforting because it is so small. Upon seeing it, you realize that the overwhelming feeling of carrying the whole world on your shoulders can be contained, grasped, and understood.
Drawing on the Morgan’s splendid medieval collection as well as on loans from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) and the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, this exhibition brings together more than 60 works. They are mostly illuminated manuscripts, all from the Morgan, but also include large objects on loan: a tapestry, metalwork, ivory, a limestone sculpture, and a narwhal tusk. Chronologically, it spans the ninth to the 16th centuries; and geographically, from west to east, from Spain to Iran, and from north to south, from northern England to southern Italy.
In the exhibition you can see knights taming hairy, club-wielding wild men; angels killing evil dragons; pious women subduing scaly man-eaters; a bearded saintly woman who was crucified; a winged ox assisting a gospel writer; as well as basilisks, alien lizard-eaters, serpent-women, dangerous sexualized sphinxes, winged sirens, dog-headed cannibals, exorcised demons, threatening Saracens, and wondrous beasts like simurghs, unicorns, and dragons.
But “the exhibition is not just a parade of monsters. … It really looks at what purpose they had and what function they served in medieval societies,” the assistant curator of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the Morgan, Joshua O’Driscoll, said on the phone.
“Today we expect monsters to stay within very specific categories, for example in horror, sci-fi, fairy tales, children’s movies … [But] In the Middle Ages, they were all over the place—in cloisters, in scientific books, in legal texts, in Bibles,” said O’Driscoll, the in-house curator for the exhibition. The exhibition then gives us the opportunity to learn about the various ways monsters were regarded in the Middle Ages and why they were so prevalent at that time.
Serving a Divine Plan
The guest curators who initiated the exhibition, art historians Asa Simon Mittman at California State University, and Sherry Lindquist at Western Illinois University, organized the works into three themes: terrors, aliens, and wonders. These categories were interchangeable in the Middle Ages, and the centerpiece of the exhibition, a magnificent and incredibly well-preserved tapestry from circa 1440 on loan from the MFA, “Tapestry with Wild Men and Moors,” incorporates all three of these themes.
While the exhibition focuses on Europe, it can also elicit curiosity about monsters from elsewhere. As innately universal and timeless subjects, monsters appear in every civilization across the world. They never go out of style because of our human needs to make sense of terrifying unknowns and to represent forces that we are unable to see but that we can imagine. Psychologically, they can be interpreted as representations of unconscious aspects of the personality, “the shadow archetype” in Jungian terms, for example. In theological terms, they are representations of evil and divine forces that can affect people at every level in society.
Scholars of medieval times have traced the meaning of the word “monster” back to the Latin verbs “monstrare” (to show) and “monere” (to warn). Monsters were accepted as part of a divine plan. They exist to teach us or warn us of something. They also acted as proof of God’s limitless ability to create anything at will, Lindquist and Mittman point out in the catalog.
The only statue on display, on loan from The Met, is of a cephalophore, or head-carrying saint, in this case, Saint Firmin. The missionary from Spain was martyred by the Romans at Amiens, France, in the early fourth century. St. Firmin persevered in his pious duties despite the inconvenience of decapitation. The statue of St. Firmin’s miraculous state was created literally to scare the hell out of viewers.
It is also reminiscent of the legendary Chinese Taoist character Shen Gongbao, featured in the classic novel “Investiture of the Gods,” who could take his head off and put it back on his shoulders at will.
Monsters indicated dangers to be avoided and were often thought to be signs of something gone awry. For example, a disease was represented as a monstrous beast, and the healer as someone exorcising that beast from the person afflicted with the illness.
One of the most fascinating objects on display for the first time in about three decades is a 19-foot-long prayer scroll from England, dated circa 1500. It was written both in English and in Latin. “Those rubrics in English provide instructions on how to use the scroll,” O’Driscoll explained. “It was used in the care of the sick during the time of the plague. We know this because the prayers continually mention the plague. The rubrics give very specific instructions on how to say a prayer. For example, there’s an instruction for putting the scroll on the belly of a pregnant woman during labor to help her give birth, and so forth.”
This scroll with amulet-like powers is not unlike the 19th-century Ethiopian Healing Scrolls, which originated from the Aksumite civilization (first–eighth century) and were also used for healing purposes.
In the Aliens section of the exhibition, however, in “Livre des merveilles du monde” (“Book of the Marvels of the World,” circa 1460, France), Ethiopians are depicted as an assortment of monstrous people, like lizard-eaters, epiphagi with eyes on their shoulders, blemmyes with faces on their chests, and panotti with ears larger than the head. They meander along with wondrous animals such as dragons or the basilisk. The guest curators pointed out that these were considered representations of actual foreign people to enforce cultural norms via negative example. In the Middle Ages, people considered unicorns as real as elephants, and people from faraway lands, like the Ethiopians, phantasmagoric.
In the the Wonders section of the exhibition, the curators featured bestiaries depicting creatures ranging from ants to wondrous allegorical creatures, with descriptions of their significance. The curators juxtaposed images of elephants and unicorns, for example, to emphasize how people in the Middle Ages marveled at both of these equally.
“We have very strong notions of the dividing line between reality and fiction or fantasy. In the Middle Ages, there was really a gray zone,” O’Driscoll said. In the Middle Ages, the term for “monster “was more often “marvel” or “wonder.” These are about the feelings that they evoke. You know that something is a marvel because you marvel at it, likewise with wonder. Something is a wonder because you wonder at it.
As Real as the Imagined
“Monsters occupy a space in our imaginations that is inherently fascinating. They are partly recognizable, partly marvelous, or completely fantastic—it is the unexpected. It’s the unusual,” O’Driscoll said.
In the Middle Ages, there was a market for narwhal tusks, passing for unicorn horns. Today we understand unicorns to be mythological animals, but in the Middle Ages they were real. People from each time period have their own understanding of reality. We tend to think that what we see with our eyes is true, but sometimes things that are imagined can be more real than what is seen. Artists throughout time have had the ability to depict things beyond the limits of quotidian understanding. Some unseeable things we know exist, like radio waves, or the vibrations emanating between a couple in love or from a compassionate person.
Medieval scholars loved to report in their chronicles any sort of unusual activities, exceptional protégés, a strange birth, or miraculous things. The “Medieval Monsters” exhibition invites us to wonder, with an inkling of how people perceived things in the Middle Ages. From “the imagined perspective of a medieval artist, the minute you see a giraffe, anything is possible. They are such bizarre creatures, who knows,” O’Driscoll said.
Following its exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum, “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders” will appear next year at the Cleveland Museum of Art from July 14 to Oct. 6, 2019 and at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, from Oct. 27, 2019 to Jan. 12, 2020.
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