“Medieval artists were experts of the monstrous. From dragons, unicorns, and other fabled beasts, to hybrid creations that combined wings, tails, and limbs in effortlessly inventive ways, the craftsmen and illuminators of the Middle Ages drew on an encyclopedic knowledge of monstrosities to fill the world around them with marvels of imagination. Medieval scholars traced the meaning of the word monster back to the Latin verbs monstrare (to show) and monere (to warn). As divine lessons, they were often thought to be signs of something gone awry or of disruptions in the social order. Unlike our monsters, they were not necessarily made to frighten or entertain—though they could certainly do that, too. Rather, medieval artists constantly adapted their monsters to suit a variety of purposes. Whether offering protection or criticizing authority, embodying social anxieties or giving shape to the unknown, monsters formed an essential part of medieval material culture. Consequently, medieval monsters have much to teach us about the cultures that created them.” — Introductory Text
John the Baptist, from Prayer Scroll, Percival, Canon (active 1500), England, Yorkshire, ca. 1500, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS G.39 section 9. Photography by Graham S Haber 2017.
The Taming the Tarasque, from Hours of Henry VIII, France, Tours, ca. 1500. The Morgan Library & Museum, MS H.8, fol. 191v, detail. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2013.
St. Firmin Holding His Head, France, Amiens, ca. 1225-75, limestone and pigment, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. nr. 36.81, image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.
Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, from Hungarian Anjou legendary single leaves, Italy or Hungary, 1325-1335, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.360.21. Photography by Janny Chiu, 2017.
Initial V, from Twelve Minor Prophets, Northeastern France, 1131-1165, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.962, fol. 55r. Photography by Janny Chiu, 2017.
Ethiopia, from Marvels of the World, France, possibly Angers, ca. 1460, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.461, fol. 26v. Photography by Janny Chiu, 2018.
Detail from Tapestry with Wild Men and Moors, Alsace, Strasbourg, ca. 1440, linen and wool slit tapestry, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Charles Potter Kling Fund. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved.
Siren, from Abus du Monde (The Abuses of the World), France, Rouen, ca. 1510, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.42, fol. 15r. Photography by Janny Chiu, 2017.
Wild man, woman, and child, from Book of Hours, Belgium, ca. 1490, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS S.7 fol. 30r. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2017.
The Annunciation as an Allegorical Unicorn Hunt, Germany, Eichstätt, ca. 1500, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.1201. Photography by Janny Chiu, 2017.
Mint, Mummy, and Mandrake, from Compendium Salernitanum, Northern Italy, possibly Venice, 1350-1375, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.873, fol. 61v. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2017.
St. Christopher Carries Christ Child, from Book of Hours, Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1520, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.307, fol. 160v. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2017.
The Whore of Babylon, from Morgan Apocalypse, London, England, ca.1255, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.524, fol. 16v. Photography by Graham S. Haber 2017.
“In the medieval world the idea of the monstrous permeated every level of society,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum, “from rulers, and the nobility and the clergy, to agrarian and urban dwellers alike. Artists of the Middle Ages captured this phenomenon in images of beings at once familiar and foreign to today’s viewer. We are grateful to our guest curators Asa Simon Mittman and Sherry Lindquist for helping us bring this engrossing subject to the public.”
Following its exhibition at the Morgan, Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders will travel to the Cleveland Museum of Art from July 14 to October 6, 2019 and the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin from October 27, 2019 to January 12, 2020.
Images courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum.