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The Symbols of Prejudice Hidden in Medieval Art

The Taming the Tarasque, from “Hours of Henry VIII,” France, Tours, ca. 1500. Photo by Graham S. Haber. Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum.

From dragons and unicorns to mandrakes and griffins, monsters and medieval times are inseparable in the popular imagination. But medieval depictions of monsters—the subject of a fascinating new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan—weren’t designed simply to scare their viewers: They had many purposes, and provoked many reactions. They terrified, but they also taught. They enforced prejudices and social hierarchies, but they also inspired unlikely moments of empathy. They were medieval European propaganda, science, art, theology, and ethics all at once.

Take a late medieval image of King Henry VI of England that’s featured in the Morgan exhibition. The king stands on a large spotted monster with wicked, reddish eyes. The monster is called an antelope, though it has little in common with the animal of the same name that we might see at the zoo—for hundreds of years, antelope were thought to have deadly, razor-sharp horns and demonic forked tails. And yet the monster’s presence in the image isn’t purely negative: Its obedient, seated position signals Henry’s power and grandeur. The medieval viewer’s fear of the antelope is complicated by her love for the king, and vice versa.

These ambiguities in medieval representations of monsters reflect the ambiguities in the meaning of the word itself. The Latin verb monstrare literally means “to show,” but over the centuries, it’s spawned an enormous brood of words with more partisan meanings. To the medieval Latin scholar, a monstrum was an omen—maybe good, maybe bad. In French or Old English, monstre described any creature that was marvelous or somehow different from others; by the 14th century, however, the word had come to mean a terrifying, fantastical being.

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, from Hungarian Anjou legendary single leaves, Italy or Hungary, 1325-1335. Photo by Janny Chiu. Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum.

Ethiopia, from Marvels of the World, France, possibly Angers, ca. 1460. Photo by Janny Chiu. Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum.

If medieval monster imagery seems surprisingly nuanced at times, it’s at least partly because image-making was a slow, careful process that left the artist with plenty of time to think through the meanings of his work. For most of the thousand years between the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and the dawn of the Age of Discovery in the 15th century (the two events that are usually thought to bookend the medieval era), war and disease set back Europe’s trade with the rest of the world, making pigments considerably rarer. Some, like red ochre, could be made from the clay found almost anywhere, but others, like ultramarine, had to be transported to Europe from the Middle East at a huge cost. Producing a tiny illustrated copy of the Book of Hours, one of the most popular Christian devotional texts of medieval times, required thousands of miles of travel, not to mention hundreds of hours of eye-straining labor—and all that just to paint the Virgin Mary’s luminous blue robe.

Examining one of the illustrations from a 15th-century Belgian copy of the Book of Hours, you can see how much love and care medieval artists put into their monsters. The scene—one of the most iconic in Christianity—shows Saint George a split second before chopping the head off of a dragon. To 21st-century eyes, George’s heroism might seem a tad comical—the dragon isn’t much bigger than a golden retriever, and it appears to be sitting belly-up, revealing a set of yellowish genitals. Yet the artist’s eye for detail stuns more than 500 years later: You can still make out the scales on the monster’s tail and the gleam in its beady eyes. Not for the first or the last time in art, the villain makes the hero look almost bland by comparison and threatens to run away with the whole show.

Not all medieval monsters were so charismatic, however; in fact, one can’t understand medieval-era images of monsters fully without understanding the ugliness and sheer, stupid meanness that inspired many of them. Anti-Semitism—which could plausibly be defined as the representation of Jews as monsters—was indisputably central to European culture of the era; bloodthirsty Jewish ogres served as stock characters in countless plays, stories, and poems. In one of the most popular genres of medieval fiction, a young, pious child would be murdered savagely, usually by a Jew, and then resurrected, with the Jew receiving an equally savage punishment (which the Christian audience would be encouraged to gloat over).

Detail of Tapestry with Wild Men and Moors, Alsace, Strasbourg, ca. 1440. Photo © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Published 11 July 2018

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