Power Explored in ‘Medieval Monsters’ at Cleveland Museum of Art
There was a time when monsters were about more than being scary creatures on the big screen.
The Cleveland Museum of Art’s exhibit, “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders,” explores the role of monsters in the Middle Ages. Organized by New York’s Morgan Museum and Library, the exhibit displays a collection of 60 illuminated manuscripts from the Morgan, along with works from CMA’s collection, including sculptures and prints.
Monsters served a number of purposes during the medieval era, according to CMA’s deputy director and chief curator Heather Lemonedes.
“They enhanced and reminded people of the power of the clergy. They were reminders to behave and construct their lives in a certain way. They were also reminders of who was in charge and held power and who was on the fringes of society. They were also intended to inspire awe,” Lemonedes said.
The exhibit is divided into three sections. The first, “Terrors,” explores how monsters are evil forces, like dragons or demons, who are defeated in order to reinforce the power of those who vanquish them, most often saints, knights and rulers. There are also depictions of those who didn’t obey the edicts of the church being swallowed into hell, which is often depicted as a mouth.
In “Terrors,” saints are depicted in special ways to indicate their ability to overcome evil. One particularly striking example in the exhibit is “Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew,” in which the saint appears to be smiling and rising from the table as he is flayed alive.
[Hungarian Anjou Legendary, in Latin, about 1325–35. Hungarian Master and Workshop, Italy, Bologna (or Hungary). Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum; 19.2 x 14.3 cm. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, Purchased by Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), 1909, MS M.360.21]
“Saints have superpowers, if you will. Their goodness runs deep, all the way to the bone. They can withstand torture and temptation and be calm about it. These saints make their saintly feats look easy. For the male saints, it’s often heroic manly things, like conquering a beast. For female saints, it’s often about their purity or chastity. Saints are usually unflustered,” Lemonedes said.
The second section, “Aliens,” doesn’t deal with creatures from outer space, but rather demonstrates how those who weren’t part of society’s dominant group were depicted during the medieval era.
[Siren, from Les Abus du Monde, c. 1510. Pierre Gringore (French, c. 1475–1538). Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum; 20 x 13 cm (7 13/16 x 5 1/16 in.). The Morgan Library & Museum, Purchased by Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913) in 1899, MS M.42 (fol. 15r) ]
“It was not a kind, tolerant or pluralistic society. They essentially demonized anyone they considered outside the norm. The norm is the Christian church. Women, Jews, Muslims, the physically and mentally ill, the poor, were all marginalized in the art of the Middle Ages,” Lemonedes said.
The exhibit’s third section, “Wonders,” examines the power of mythological beasts to inspire awe in viewers. Familiar creatures including unicorns and griffins are on view, along with some lesser known anomalies.
"There are monsters called ‘blemmyes,’ which are human shaped people, but without heads. Instead their face is their chest. There are also creatures called ‘panotti,’ who are humans with amazingly large ears, almost like elephants or rabbits,” Lemonedes said.
[Panotti a mythical race of people possessing large ears]-[Livre des merveilles du monde (Book of Marvels of the World), in French, c. 1460. Illuminated by the Master of the Geneva Boccaccio (French, active 1440–80), France, Angers. Ink and tempera on vellum; 28.1 x 22 cm. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, Purchased by Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), 1911, MS M.461 (fol. 26v)]
Lemonedes feels that our interest in monsters in modern times shares similarities and differences with people of the medieval era.
“I think we are fascinated by monsters and the monstrous today in some ways just as much as we were in the Middle Ages, but it shows in different kinds of contexts. Our fascination with monsters is reflected in popular books like Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ or J.K. Rowlings ‘Harry Potter’ series. We are also fascinated today by monstrous human behavior. You see that in the series’ on television that address serial murders,” Lemonedes said.
“One way in which our culture is similar to the culture of the Middle Ages is that human beings tend to demonize or make monstrous people who are different, and we are still doing that very much today,” Lemonedes said.
Hear CMA’s Heather Lemonedes describe three of the works in the exhibit.
[Psalter-Hours of Yolande de Soissons, in Latin and French, main section c. 1280–99, exhibited pages c. 1400. France, Amiens. Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum; 18.2 x 13.4 cm. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, Purchased, 1927, MS M.729 (fol. 404v)]
[The Annunciation as an Allegorical Unicorn Hunt, c. 1500. Germany, Eichstätt. Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum; 12.7 x 19 cm (5 x 7 7/16 in.). The Morgan Library & Museum, Purchased on a grant provided by the Bernard H. Breslauer Foundation and with contributions from the Visiting Committee to the Department of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, 2016, MS M.1201]