Monstrously Yours: Beasts and Fantastic Creatures
Monsters have generated terror and wonder throughout the ages. They embody fear of the Other and of the unknown and, at the same time, arouse amazement as well as interrogation. They repel us as much as they attract us. Drawn from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, the selection of drawings, engravings, etchings and woodcuts from the 15th to the 17th centuries titled Beautiful Monsters in Early European Prints and Drawings (1450–1700) explores the representation of monstrous creatures in the work of artists of the Renaissance and the Baroque, such as Andrea Mantegna, Albrecht Dürer, Hendrick Goltzius and Jacques Callot.
The etymology of the word "monster", derived from the Latin verb monstro (to show), points to the early understanding of monsters as signs or portents that disrupt the natural order. Ancient philosophers tried to make sense of them, and Aristotle explained that they are mistakes of nature, things that fail to attain their natural end. In the Middle Ages, men were tormented by the idea of salvation and monsters became associated with the demonic. The devil assumed various monstrous shapes and Hell was populated by horrifying beasts. Gargoyles – ornamental monsters that decorate the outside walls of gothic churches – were used as representations of evil. They were meant to compel people to enter the church by reminding them that the end of days was near and to ward off evil so as to keep the churchgoers safe.
During the Renaissance period, the subject of monsters preoccupied and fascinated many, particularly humanists and artists. Imagery of the 15th and 16th century is replete with monsters, creatures and beasts, as witnessed for example in the paintings of northern artists such as Hieronymus Bosch and Jan Brueghel the Elder. Once papermaking and printmaking found a footing on the continent in the 15th century, images could be widely disseminated and subjects became more varied, enabling artists to explore sinister themes in greater depth.
Whether religious symbols or allegories, monsters took on an important role in European visual culture in this period and became didactic tools as much as instruments of criticism. Representations of monstrous and beastly beings also conveyed moralistic messages. Often violent, these compositions reveal religious, moral and social anxieties. Moreover, they bear witness to a collective imagination that expressed a singular vision of the world and testify to the unbridled creativity and ingenuity of artists.
Many, like Albrecht Dürer, found key metaphors in Christian narratives. Religious chimeras, in fact, acted as a significant source of artistic inspiration. Tales such as those of Saint George killing a dragon or the Whore of Babylon riding a seven-headed beast provided artists with a licence to bring to life the monsters that occupied their minds. The inauspicious lands inhabited by these creatures offered artists the opportunity to fashion exuberant and enigmatic compositions that are surprisingly fantastical and strange. Jacques Callot’s rendering of The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1635) is typically theatrical: it casts the battle between good and evil not as a mystical vision but as a high-pitched dramatic performance. It is an epic, fictive conflict acted out on the stage, and the beleaguered Anthony is relegated to a small corner of the scene.
Similarly, the exciting world of Classical myths supplied artists with a wealth of fictional accounts that warranted the existence of hideous creatures. Revolving around the lives of gods and heroes, Greek and Roman myths and legends generally called for the interference of antagonists, making gods appear more wrathful and heroes more valiant – after all, there are no heroes without bestial fiends. Mythological creatures are often the product of an assembly of parts from various beings, resulting from the unnatural contamination of diverse elements. Indeed, satyrs or fauns, centaurs, harpies, unicorns and other such beings are usually the fruit of hybridization, the crossbreeding of two beings of different species.
Sea monsters are another example of creatures that combine the characteristics of two or more life forms found in nature. In Andrea Mantegna’s celebrated engraving Battle of the Sea Gods of around 1485–88, the artist combines beauty and the grotesque by devising beings that are as frightful as they are elegant. Marine dragons, seahorses and tritons – creatures human from the waist up but with the lower body and tail of a fish, dolphin or sea serpent – engage in battle, motivated by Envy who is personified by a nude and belligerent hag. The subject of Mantegna's print is thought to be artistic envy, but like many images of allegorical monsters, the theme remains unclear.
Artists were also attracted by the decorative potential of these composite creatures. Significantly, the expression “grotesque,” which can denote incongruous and repulsive things, was originally used to describe an extravagant style of ancient Roman decorative art. Rediscovered at the end of the 15th century, such forms characterized by hybridity, duplication and metamorphosis were taken up by Renaissance artists and used to give rise to refined decorative monsters. The graceful sirens and chimeric animals found in a small but striking print by Lucas van Leyden were meant as models to decorate objects such as clocks, locks, boxes, vessels, cabinets and swords.
Monsters have always generated terror and amazement. Artists were giving shape to the beasts that populate collective imaginations long before The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones came along, and they still captivate us today. Through them, we can glimpse the power dynamics of religion and gender, and observe how art is capable of bringing a certain beauty even to the monstrous.
Beautiful Monsters in Early European Prints and Drawings (1450–1700) is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from November 29, 2019 to March 29, 2020. Consult the Gallery's events listing for details of performances, conferences, lectures and events. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.