Once upon a time books were written and illuminated by hand. Manuscripts were designed by monks or masters and used for public and private acts of Christian devotion. Woven throughout traditional text and iconography are marvelously inventive and remarkably imaginative images, used to convey a range of Christian cultural attitudes and beliefs.
Organized by the Morgan Library & Museum, the exhibition, “Medieval Monsters, Terrors, Aliens and Wonders,” now at the Blanton Museum, examines such symbolic, allegorical and moralistic content embedded in the (splendidly weird) pictures on the pages of the medieval book. Also — it’s not every day that Austin sees such a cache of treasures from Manhattan’s venerable Morgan.
Monsters were popular fodder for medieval artist and viewer. Part-human, part-animal hybrids were used to express things understood as outside of God’s plan, often feared, and disruptive to European social norms. Artworks in the exhibition vacillate between demonizing “otherness” and seeking ways to engage with it.
Zoomorphic traits were drawn from up-close and personal experiences with animals, which in medieval life were common. An agricultural economy dominated much of Europe and folks farmed and raised stock. Animals provided clothes and food as well as transportation. The potential threats of wild animals were also well known.
One of the most beloved books of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was the bestiary. In it, beasts, both fact and fiction, took center stage. Unbelievable unicorns, dragons, griffins, wyverns, basilisks and breeds that defy categorization, crossed the pages and popped up in the margins.
But as this exhibition demonstrates, animal portrayal and monster making wasn’t all fun and games. Christianity often used animals or their features to illustrate power over demonic forces — chaos, sin — and the so-called heathens that needed conversion.
Not a bestiary, but an English prayer roll (ca. 1500) attributed to Canon Percival contains numerous images of saints, animals and monsters in brilliant vermillion and black. The purpose of the roll (aka scroll) and its text is to protect its reader from illness, death and other harm. One detail shows a self-composed and solemn John the Baptist surrounded by menacing beasts, with outstretched claws and bared teeth. He wears a camel-skin cloak that drapes in pieces at his feet, producing the effect of him having multiple limbs. Aside numerous important saints, King Henry VI is also included to show both his and the church’s power to safeguard the faithful.
Anything antithetical to the medieval moral majority could be classified as “alien.” An exhibition label notes the Latin word “alienus” meant “foreign” or “exotic” and it included people from another part of the world. Monstrous imagery could indicate those from outside the Christian faith or other marginalized populations – women, the poor, the mentally ill or the physically impaired.
Perceived enemies of Christendom — principally Jews and Muslims — were identified through various means. In a richly saturated Psalter (Book of Psalms) painting from 13th c. Augsburg, Germany, a sword-wielding angel ushers the damned into the mouth of a flamed filled hell. A crowned king is subdued and behind him a Jewish figure is identified by his beard and his pointed hat. An exhibition label explains that the hat, or “pileu cornutus,” reflects how in 1215 a papal decree demanded Jews wear certain clothing to identify themselves, and that these along with the depiction of physical traits such as large noses and beards are “still prevalent in modern anti-Semitic propaganda.” Here the Jewish figure has his hands clasped and his head bent sorrowfully forward. He contemplates his fate as the medieval viewer judges him and as the label states “his very existence … considered an affront to Jesus.”
More curious in tone, scenes from the French “Livre des merveilles du monde” (Book of Marvels of the World) (1460) contain colorful imagery of imagined distant lands. In a page depicting Ethiopia, nude women and scantily clad men mingle and crawl amidst animals including a mythological dragon and a basilisk. Some features are distorted or intentionally depicted as bizarre to reflect a non-Western or pagan perspective. Near the center of the page people pray to a canine idol, and in the lower left corner standing figures devour lizards as food. This fanciful view of a far-away place while perhaps less harshly moralistic, with nude figures cavorting in a high horizon-lined outdoors, is reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
Feminine monsters like sphinxes and sirens tell us about gender constructs in the middle ages. A book made for James IV of Scotland, “Les abus du monde,” (1510) contains a siren from Greek mythology. With long hair, nude torso, large wings and dragon tail she presents her tools of musical seduction, a trumpet and harp. Eight male figures emerge from the surrounding seascape fully clothed in fashionable garb. Accompanied by a moralizing poem connecting contemporary women to the sins of (original femme fatale) Eve, together, poem and image warn men of succumbing to the wiles of women.
In a French Book of Hours (a prayer book for laity), from Saint-Omer, an image of Christ washing Peter’s feet appears against a gold background enclosed by Gothic architectural elements like pinnacles and pointed arches. Surrounding the scene foliage decorates the borders, the bottom punctuated by a peacock, hybrid man, and leaping dog. A female donor figures kneels on the right amidst while a nude man exposes his backside and holds a on crossbow with arrow pointing down. Homosexuality was taboo in medieval society —the back-baring male holding a phallic object may represent urges and behavior considered unacceptable and outside the divine order.
In the “Vaticinia de summis pontificibus,” a historical event, the Western Schism is addressed. One of the papal claimants, Pope Urban VI, is seen with a human head, ass’s ears, and a body of a wyvern (winged dragon with barbed tail). A sword-swallowing wolf head, tipping the tail of Urban represents Clement VII, his opponent. A playfully drawn serpent chases a scorpion under the major figure’s paw-like feet and a crescent moon and stars are placed top right. This book, full of papal portraits, also included prophecies. Propagandistic in nature, it exudes a type dissent more political than theological.
“Medieval Monsters” proves that artistic rendering of beasts and monsters was a complicated affair, promulgating cultural biases, misinformation, and disinformation, tactics that may be resonant with today’s viewer. It also reveals the awesome sense of wonder inhabiting the mind of the medieval artist.
“Medieval Monsters Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens,” Wonders” continues through January 12 at the Blanton Museum of Art. blantonmuseum.org