In the Middle Ages, monstrous races were thought to inhabit the edges of the Christian world, and there was debate about whether such beings—hair-covered or elephant-snouted, headless or stork-necked—enjoyed God's love. Such creatures often stood in for "the other" in Christian society: Jews, Muslims, women and the infirm. Dreams and visions of monsters were understood as powerful portents, and they became part of the visual language of theology and politics.
Monsters lurked in the margins of medieval art and architecture in purposeful contrast to the authoritative holy figures depicted at the center of things. Scary or ridiculous, sexual or obscene, they were always inventive, designed to incite interest and provoke emotional responses. Such supernatural threats called for supernatural heroes. No matter how formidable their claws, horns, teeth, wings or scales, monsters were no match for saints and angels, who vanquished them with razor-edged swords, shining armor and unswerving faith.
The exhibition will explore how images of monsters in the European Middle Ages embodied fears, expressed ideologies and exercised the medieval imagination. The exhibition will include rare illuminated manuscript pages and stained glass from the collections of Augustana College, Rock Island; Saint Louis Art Museum; Olin Library Manuscripts Collection, Washington University in St. Louis, as well as several other public and private collections.
The exhibition Medieval Monsters is curated by Sherry C.M. Lindquist, Ph.D., assistant professor of art history, Western Illinois University, and made possible with assistance from the Figge Art Museum and students from the Western Illinois Museum Studies Program.
This exhibition will be on view October 12 through December 15, 2013.
Unidentified artist, Italian, Apocalyptic Scene, late 13th–early 14th century; tempera and gold leaf on parchment. Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum, museum purchase, 117:1952