Exhibit of the week
Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders
Morgan Library & Museum, New York City, through Sept. 23
“We’ve always enjoyed a good mythical creature, whether drawn, painted, or CGI-ed,” said Angelica Frey in Observer.com. But what use are our monsters? In New York, a new exhibition “rife with dragons, wyverns, and sea swines” looks to the Middle Ages for the roots of our nightmare visions, yet “what strikes the viewer is how modern the motives behind them ultimately are.” In one section, we see how rulers exploited fears of the monstrous by commissioning art depicting themselves slaying awful beasts. In another, we see how perceived outsiders or others—including women, Jews, and paupers—were frequently demonized through imagery that stoked fear and hatred. The show is “a master class in medieval lore,” yet it feels as relevant as an X-ray.
Many of the show’s creatures, it must be said, are “adorably impossible little beings,” said Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. Unicorns abound, as do “hairy, beaked things with size 19 paws.” Most of the mutants, though, are projections of anxiety. Medieval Europeans really did believe that the mentally ill were inhabited by demons, and medieval men were apparently terrified by women. In one 1510 illumination, a half-nude winged siren holds a harp in one hand and a horn in the other, using both to seduce sailors with song. Still, “it’s her avian claws that reveal her true purpose”—because she’s using them to shove men beneath the waves. Oddly, monstrous imagery was also used to venerate the era’s superheroes, said Allison Meier in Hyperallergic.com. St. Denis, a martyr said to have toted his own severed head, is a frequent subject, as is St. Bartholomew, who was allegedly flayed alive.
There’s no ignoring “the sheer, stupid meanness” that inspired some images here, said Jackson Arn in Artsy.net. Jews are often depicted as child-murdering ogres; Muslims are merciless torturers. Elsewhere, though, the God of Christianity himself is portrayed as monstrous, blurring the line between religious awe and terror. Fear isn’t even the only reason these monsters grip us. Consider a famous 15th-century image in which the dragon that St. George is slaying “isn’t much bigger than a golden retriever,” yet the glint in the beast’s eyes arrest us. “Not for the last time in art, the villain makes the hero look almost bland by comparison and threatens to run away with the whole show.”