“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde
As human beings, we are naturally afraid of the unknown and the unfamiliar. Our minds make concrete those things that are abstract as way to control that which we do not fully understand. Monsters are one of the most prevalent ways humans have conceived of and visualized such fears and unknowns. Since ancient times, monsters have been used to explain natural phenomenon, maintain power and inspire awe.
Our upcoming exhibition, Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders, opening Sunday, July 7, explores how monsters functioned in the Middle Ages. Illuminated manuscripts primarily from the Morgan Library & Museum’s collection, as well as sculptures and prints from the CMA’s collection, bring us face to face with the fears and anxieties of the Middle Ages through monstrous creatures of all sorts. Some you may be familiar with, like sirens and griffins, while others like panoti and blemmyes may be less familiar.
Even though some of these monsters are not part of our cultural vocabulary today, as I worked on this exhibition, I was struck by how relevant the content remains today in 2019.
One section of the exhibition is called “Aliens.” This has nothing to do with extraterrestrial beings. The term “alien” in this context derives from the Latin word for foreign. Essentially this is anyone from somewhere else, and even more broadly, this section addresses those that fell outside of the “norm,” such as marginalized groups of people that in the Middle Ages included women, Jews, Muslims, and the poor. We can explore the way in which medieval society made these marginalized people monstrous to emphasize their otherness. In this image of Malchus of Maronia Attacked by Saracens, from the Vitae patrum (figure 3.15 in catalogue), notice the difference in how the Saracens, which the miniature anachronistically equates with Muslims, are depicted with wild hair and naked bodies compared to the Christian monks with neatly coiffed hair and tailored garments. The Saracens are depicted as wild and unruly to emphasize that they should be feared.
Some of these images may be upsetting, even painful, and you may draw parallels to issues we still grapple with today. The power of art gives us a window into our humanity — both the good and the bad. As I spend more time with these images and consider what I want to take with me, I am reminded of a quote by Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” Isolating and dehumanizing groups of people we don’t know — and often fear — is called “othering,” which prevents any individual understanding and doesn’t allow each person to be themselves. As you explore the complex ways in which monsters were used in the past through the works of art in this exhibition, I invite you to consider how these ideas resonate with you today.
If you want to continue this conversation in person, join me for a gallery talk on Tue, 7/16, or 9/10, at noon.