‘Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders’
If you haven’t stood face to face with a cephalophore recently, then you may need a trip to the Morgan Library’s “Medieval Monsters” exhibition, open until September 23. The show includes a thirteenth-century statue of the martyred St. Firmin, holding his own severed head while standing serenely erect. This “head-bearer” may not immediately register as a monster, belonging as it does to a Church context, but it does exemplify the complex response evoked by the medieval monstrous—a response parsed by the show’s subtitle. Artisans of the Middle Ages explored the human condition through disruptions and distortions that were at once terrifying, alien, and wondrous.
Medieval Europe inherited many of its monsters from Greco-Roman antiquity, and the Morgan show has good examples of these: the freakish races of India, once catalogued by Roman Pliny the Elder, appear here in both a mappamundi from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) and an illumination from the Livre des Merveilles du Monde (circa 1460). But rather than amassing case after case of such grotesques, the Morgan curators opt for diversity and range. Demons and serpents from Biblical lore, or saints like Firmin who defy the limits of the body, express with their pre-Christian forerunners a fascination with transgressions of both nature and culture. Thus a furry Mary Magdalene, clad only in her own overgrown hair, is here juxtaposed with various versions of the so-called Wild Man, a yeti-like figure who arose in European art in the twelfth century. Both defy civilized norms with their shagginess, the former in a Christian setting, the latter in a primitivist tradition with pagan roots.
As noted by Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century, the liminal situation of monsters, on the page or on the map, is often essential to their meaning. The Morgan show highlights examples of “framing” grotesques: bizarre, semi-human fantasies that inhabit the margins of texts or peek out from the foliage that scrolls around illustrated panels. In the world map from the Nuremberg Chronicle, the freaks of India—figures with too many or too few limbs, fingers, eyes—are relegated to a side panel outside the cartographic space (which itself displays the liminal zone of Africa and Asia, the “other” world from Europe’s perspective). A courtly scene of a chess game, illustrating the chivalric romance Les voeux du paon (“The Vows of the Peacock”), is mooned by a naked male figure standing just outside its border and pointing gleefully to his own exposed buttock. On the margin of the facing page, the shaggy Wild Man makes yet another appearance, kneeling down beside a planted sword with parodic solemnity.
Not all the curatorial choices here are successful. Images of Jews from Crucifixion scenes, some with only mildly exaggerated features, are rather awkwardly shoehorned into the show’s “Aliens” section, as are various versions of the temptation of Eve. But the ranginess and breadth that led to these missteps is also one of the great strengths of the show.
For more information, visit themorgan.org.
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