As someone who’s taken to calling members of our government “monsters” pretty freely lately, one of the current exhibitions on view at the Morgan Library and Museum (through Sept. 23) caught my eye: “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders.” It turns out I’ve been using the concept in too small and literal a way, but that’s because the monsters I’ve been calling as such are obvious and uncreative. Medieval monsters are complicated, surprising and, remarkably often, entertaining. The Morgan show, organized by guest curators Asa Simon Mittman and Sherry C. M. Lindquist, focuses on the museum’s scintillating collection of illuminated medieval manuscripts and takes an expansive view of what monstrousness can mean. Monsters can frighten, of course, but they can also teach lessons (both moral and “scientific”), inspire pious action, serve as pointed social commentary and many other cultural functions. The handful of objects that complement the manuscript pages — a tapestry, a limestone sculpture, decorative metalwork, carved ivory, an entire narwhal tusk — are visually stunning and help reinforce the communicative power of the illuminations. What this collection of images ultimately demonstrates is that medieval visual culture is much more sophisticated than we usually acknowledge and can appear shockingly modern. Although, alternatively, the real lesson might be about how small-mindedly medieval we still are today.
One of the first images in the show is a gorgeous map of Iceland made in Antwerp in 1595. Not only does it include notable geographical detail for such an early map, but the island is surrounded by a terrible bestiary of monsters like fearsome dragon-ish fish and a “sea swine.” People today tend to dismiss sea monsters on old maps as fantasias of benighted simpletons “back then,” but the curators, in a label, explain that these monsters might be better understood as colonial propaganda, scaring away competitors from valuable territories and trade routes.
The curators organized the exhibition and catalogue according to three broad themes, as in the show’s title: Terrors, Aliens and Wonders. Terrors includes images such as the archangel Michael or St. George slaying their respective dragons, as well as other saints’ beatific acts versus monsters (for example, St. Martha taming the Tarasque, effortlessly with the power of her faith, in the image at the top of this page) or, failing that, their bloody martyrdoms. An arresting 14th-century volume shows the story of St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive by the brother of an Indian king he converted to Christianity. This richly colored, extensively gilded page shows four scenes from the martyr’s life, most notably his still-animate grimacing — or possibly smiling — face well into the horrific flaying process. As the label explains, “Such scenes were meant to demonstrate, in the most terrifying way possible, the power of God to break natural laws and defy even death.” Terrors also contains supernatural images of Mary Magdalene and some amazing, if disturbingly uncanny, representations of the Trinity as three-headed or, more creepily, three-faced (with shared eyes!).
The show covers Christian Europe almost exclusively (although there is a spectacular zoological study of elephants by a Persian artist), so the section examining Aliens includes many racially and/or sartorially caricatured Jews and Muslims. The curators do a careful and thorough job of explaining and contextualizing these condescending stereotypes, and there are examples of exotically dressed non-Christians both being cast into hell as victims but also in positions of power battling Christians. Also among the Aliens are examples of Eve’s gullibility and perfidy as the original femme fatale in the Garden of Eden, and some updated — but, of course, still clearly misogynistic — ancient species of female monsters like the Sphinx and the Siren. An exquisite 16th-century French manuscript includes an elaborate composition showing a Siren, conceived as a woman-bird-fish creature, presiding over the drowning of numerous men. The image illustrates a poem warning men of being made fools by smooth-talking women, but the image seems to present the Siren rather heroically, so the ultimate tone includes at least a hint of ambiguity.
Giants and various imaginative episodes from the Book of Revelation make up a substantial portion of the monsters in the Wonders section, but the main focus is all manner of exotic, if not legendary, animals. One of the points the show makes is that elephants, for example, were no more or less plausible or fantastical to medieval Europeans than dragons and unicorns — indeed, in a world with narwhals, how do unicorns not seem reasonable to medieval Europeans? If women, as subject matter, are too often figured as femmes fatales or man-eating monsters, the show includes at least one image created by a medieval nun. This example of Nonnenarbeiten — work made by and for nuns — features an allegorical unicorn hunt, a common medieval theme that is symbolic of Christ and the Virgin Mary. A detailed, complicated work, the artist has carefully labeled each element in the fanciful, hybrid image combining disparate biblical iconography. The catalogue describes the scene as an artifact of the nun-artist’s wonder and notes that it would have provided powerful personal edification for the artist and her community, who identified strongly with the Virgin.
In 500 years, will some museum mount a show explaining to the people of that time the kinds of monsters we seem to be obsessed with today? Will there be didactic texts about neo-Nazis or public shaming on social media or terrorists or killer clowns or the various ways artists have represented the malice inherent in President Trump’s hair? I can only hope that such a show would be handled with the depth and sensitivity that the curators brought to “Medieval Monsters.”