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Review: ‘Medieval Monsters’? Those Beasts Are Not Extinct

Category: Art & Culture,Arts & Design

One of the first manuscripts you see upon entering the show “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders” at the Morgan Library & Museum is a 1595 edition of the Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius’s “Theatrum Orbis Terrarum” (“Theater of the World”). The book is open to a map of Iceland featuring rows of mountains, a lava-spewing volcano and an array of monsters, including one that looks like a horse crossed with a mermaid and a prehistoric sea creature. Ortelius’s “Theatrum” is regarded as the first modern atlas, yet, as the exhibition text points out, it still adheres to a medieval view of the world. Fanciful images representing the strangeness and danger of the unknown accompany geographic information.

“Medieval Monsters” abounds in wondrous creatures, often rendered in rich colors and a flat, cartoonish style. There are a seven-headed dragon that presages the apocalypse; a winged ox that Luke sits on as he writes his Gospel; and the gaping mouths of hell, belonging to alternately vicious- and bored-looking beasts.

Yet the exhibition, which contains some 70 objects, most of them manuscripts, but also a handful of sculptures and a tapestry, is focused more on what the monsters represent than on the details of their appearances. Divided into three parts, the show explores the social symbolism of these invented creatures — how they were used to shore up authority figures, marginalize maligned groups of people and inspire awe in readers and viewers of the day.

The first two are the strongest sections, providing a study of how humans have been depicted as monstrous, for both positive and negative ends. Take, for example, women. In a leaf from a 1498 gradual, a book containing the musical elements of the Mass, Mary Magdalene is shown ascending to heaven while covered in her long, brown hair — a sign of her newfound saintly modesty. By contrast, the French manuscript “Les Abus du Monde” (“The Abuses of the World”), from around 1510, features a birdlike siren with perfect breasts and sharp talons, whose music has driven a group of sailors to drown. Both figures have beastly qualities, but one represents grace and the other, sin.

A monster, according to its dictionary definition, is “one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character.” This exhibition reminds us that the ruling members of society usually determine what’s normal and acceptable. We may not have drawings of monsters on our maps anymore, but perhaps that’s because we don’t need to. Those in power still have plenty of ways of portraying others as subhuman.

Follow Jillian Steinhauer on Twitter: @jilnotjill.

Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders
Through Sept. 23 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, Manhattan; 212-685-0008, themorgan.org.


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