The Symbols of Prejudice Hidden in Medieval Art
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.
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).
Perhaps the most famous example of this sort of story is the Prioress’s Tale from the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s influential collection The Canterbury Tales, in which a Jew murders a Christian child and throws his body into a dungheap. Nearly as famous is the legend of the Jew of Bourges, who burns alive his own son for taking communion, only to be cast into the flames himself.
An early 14th-century French illustration depicts the Jew of Bourges with big rolling eyes and a porcine nose as he thrusts his child into a furnace. The image, in all of its racist hysteria and grotesque sentimentality, isn’t all that different from the anti-Semitic cartoons that Julius Streicher published at the height of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich—and like Nazi propaganda, it tries to manipulate gentile viewers by uniting them against a common enemy. The same could be said for many of the artworks on display in the Morgan exhibition, which feature monsters modeled off of other powerless, persecuted groups: not only Jews, but also Muslims, women, the poor, and the mentally ill.
These images may have been intended to strengthen medieval Europe in the face of a perceived threat from monstrous pagans, but seen today, they almost seem to convey the opposite: the fragility and self-loathing of medieval culture, and the poverty of genuine differences between Christian and pagan.
An illustration from a 15th-century French Book of Hours shows Saint Quentin being tortured by a fearsome, bearded Saracen (i.e., Muslim warrior), who’s about to drive a nail into the martyr’s neck. The Saracen’s pose is virtually identical to Saint George’s, yet the former’s violent action is supposed to be sacrilegious, while the latter’s is saintly. And in a 13th-century German Book of Psalms, an angel marches a long line of damned souls towards the fires of hell. One of the sinners is clearly meant to be a Jew, judging by his beard, hat, and long nose, but another appears to be a monk. Here, wickedness isn’t limited to a monstrous Other: The danger posed by enemies of the faith is equaled by that of the enemy within.
An even greater irony of medieval monster imagery is that pious Biblical figures—martyrs, disciples of Christ, and even Christ himself—were themselves depicted as monstrous. The blood-curdling stories of Saint Bartholomew being flayed alive, and of Saint Denis, who’s said to have carried around his own head after it was chopped it off, inspired endless religious artworks. A 14th-century Hungarian depiction of Bartholomew’s martyrdom shows the saint-in-the-making with his skin half-removed, his mouth locked in a Cheshire cat-like grin. Still stranger is a 12th-century Italian artist’s rendition of the Holy Trinity as a four-eyed, three-headed mutant. Images like these—no less than those of dragons or child-killing Jews—seek to terrify, but for a different reason: to suggest that fear is a part of religious faith, a challenge that every Christian must embrace.
In recent years, there have been plenty of revisionist takes on legends and fairy tales, showing how the fictional characters we usually think of as monstrous aren’t so bad. (The 2014 film Maleficent and Wicked—both the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel and the 2003 musical—come to mind.) These sorts of stories seem to imply that, once upon a time, witches and ogres and dragons were perceived as unambiguously evil, but now we know not to think in such black-and-white terms.
What the exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum suggests is that, on the contrary, our view of monsters was never black-and-white in the first place: Our hatred was always bound up in awe and envy and self-hatred and kinship. In this way, studying medieval images of monsters can be bittersweet: The only thing as strong as our capacity to marvel at the unknown, the record shows, is our capacity to hate it.