The Marvellous and the Monstrous in the Sculpture of Twelfth-Century Europe

First published in August 2013, Professor Kirk Ambrose’s book took an unusual approach to the monsters depicted in so much medieval art and architecture. What if these fearsome creatures articulated much more than simply fear? It’s a refreshing take on a huge segment of medieval art (specifically in the book’s case sculpture in religious buildings) and one that helps explain the extraordinary imagination that was poured into so many of these creations. Now that his book has been published in paperback, Professor Ambrose gives us his latest thoughts on the subject.

During the twelfth century, artists across Europe carved thousands of wooden and stone monsters into the fabric of churches, as well as in a variety of secular buildings. Some of these fantastic creatures correspond to types, such as sirens and griffins, with roots in antiquity. Others appear to be the spontaneous improvisations of artists, who would inventively combine motifs, such as feathers, pointed teeth, and snake tails. Why was so much artistic energy and so much expense dedicated to fashioning these monsters?

The recent, and gratifying, release in paperback of my book on monsters in Romanesque sculpture prompted me to revisit this question. I firmly believe that far from being marginal curiosities, monsters can shed light on central aspects of culture, including what is valued, what is demonized, and how creativity itself is understood. Positive reviews of my book, including those by Scott Brown (Burlington Magazine), Christopher Howse (Daily Telegraph), and Colum Hourihane (Speculum), have likewise recognized the promise that studying monsters holds. Indeed, this sentiment has continued to grow among medievalists since 2013, when my book first appeared, as attested by numerous publications and museum exhibitions dedicated to the topic of the monstrous. While a comprehensive survey would run many pages, exemplary of this trend are the exhibition currently on view at the Morgan Library in New York City, Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders, and an exhibition opening in May 2019 at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World. Museums are especially welcome interlocutors, for they effectively engage broad, diverse audiences.

I would note in a general way, however, that recent attention to monsters in the Middle Ages has gravitated toward later periods and largely focused on examples found in manuscript paintings. These trends are partly understandable given that architectural sculpture by its very nature is difficult or impossible to incorporate, say, within the context of a museum exhibition. Yet, I believe it is important to signal the continued need to consider the case of monumental Romanesque sculpture as the field of monster studies continues to develop. From the wooden stave churches of Norway to the monasteries of Portugal, from the stone fonts of England to the church portals of Hungary, carvings of monsters occupied remarkably public positions in twelfth-century life, the scope of which was unprecedented in Europe. The physical presence of sculpture, as Bernard of Clairvaux knew all too well, renders imaginary creatures salient, even to the point of distraction, for individuals as they move through built environments.

If Charles Homer Haskins’s epithet “Renaissance of the Twelfth Century” has fallen out of fashion, historians continue to recognize the period from 1000 to 1200 as transformative on many fronts, including in the domains of agriculture, literature, philosophy, technology, and, not least, the visual arts. That carvings of monsters were so imbricated into daily life during this period of fundamental change warrants attention if we are to fully understand developments in subsequent centuries. In short, I would argue that the twelfth century was a fundamental, perhaps even foundational, moment in the history of the monstrous in the West.

This guest post is written by Kirk Ambrose, Associate Professor & Chair, Department of Art and Art History, University of Colorado Boulder.

Subscribe to the Boydell & Brewer blog via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

* indicates required

Recent Posts