Cleveland, OH: “Medieval Monsters” @ the CMA

I think this week is less of a stretch than last week in keeping with the Halloween theme of October. C’mon, monsters?! Scary! But obviously the Cleveland Museum of Art doesn’t agree with me, because this exhibition closed well before Halloween, on 6th October. So you can’t visit it now, but I couldn’t have blogged about it in time anyway because I didn’t see it myself until the week before it closed, what with not living in Cleveland (frankly, I was glad I got to see it at all, after longingly watching CMA post about it for months on Instagram).

 

“Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders” was a free exhibition, as is the museum itself, but good luck finding parking nearby other than in the museum’s $10 lot (and public transport in Cleveland? Forget it!), but I can’t really begrudge them that income before it is such an excellent museum. However, they could have had better signage, because it took me ages to figure out where this exhibition was (I could only find paper maps, when a big mounted map somewhere would be much more eco-friendly), and I couldn’t even find a member of staff to ask. Eventually I realised it was downstairs, opposite the main special exhibition that you have to pay for (on Michelangelo at the time of my visit. I skipped it).

 

As you may have guessed from the title, the exhibition was divided into three sections: Terrors, which was meant to be about how monsters “enhanced the auras of those in power,” though I seem to recall it being primarily about saints and the ways in which they were tortured to death (admittedly, many of those pictures and manuscripts were originally owned by various kings and queens, hence the power I guess); Aliens, which was about marginalised groups in medieval European society; and Wonders, which was more in the vein of teratology, and included fabulous beasts and anomalous (and imaginary) humans.

 

The museum had also produced a rather fabulous free Field Guide to Medieval Monsters, which included images of all the monsters featured in the exhibition, with a brief description of each. This included some of my old favourites like Blemmyae (the supposed race of headless people with faces on their chests) and the Hellmouth (literally a mouth that was meant to be the entrance to hell); and others I’d seen but never knew the names of, like Gryllus (a human head on horse-like legs. Different from a centaur, because Gryllus is just a head sitting right on top of legs, no body) and the Ziphius (meant to be a horrible sea monster, but he’s grumpy and adorable! I want one as a pet. Please go look at him via the link at the start of this paragraph).

 

Even considering that much of the art was religious in nature – which is not normally my thing – because it was for the most part so weird and gory, this ending up being so my type of exhibition. There was thoughtful text in each room describing how the idea of monsters shaped the medieval world, and covering serious themes like mental illness and xenophobia, but I have to admit that I was mainly in it for the illuminated manuscripts and the promise of marginalia, and that is what has stuck with me the most when it came time to write this post. Though I probably shouldn’t, I find many medieval pictures depicting the martyrdom of saints completely hilarious, and my favourite here was the piece above left depicting St. Bartholomew keeping his chin up with a jolly grin whilst being flayed alive (and clearly the medieval church had a sense of humour just as sick as mine, because he is the patron saint of tanners, leather workers and butchers. Talk about black humour).

 

There was also some charming marginalia here, including my personal favourite, a man mooning some sort of ceremony (I forgot which) with his thumb up his butt to indicate disrespect (in case the mooning wasn’t disrespectful enough). Not quite as good as a butt trumpet, but close enough!

 

I also loved all the beasts – even the real ones like elephants and crocodiles appeared to have been drawn by someone who had never seen such things in person, and I find the naive nature of their illustrations endlessly charming. This exhibition was an absolute joy to look at, and I’m sorry you won’t be able to see it too, but I hope my (poor quality) images at least gave you a sense of what was there. My only complaint was that the postcards in the gift shop didn’t feature the best of the monsters, but I know having custom postcards made is always a bit of a gamble, so I can’t bitch too much. 4/5.

 

Whilst I was here, in addition to visiting my favourite Henri Rousseau (Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo) and Jacques-Louis David (Cupid and Psyche) paintings, I also popped in to see their “Color and Comfort: Swedish Modern Design” exhibition, which was in one of the small galleries upstairs. Based on the name, I was expecting something IKEA-esque, but it was so much better than that. This was actually about textile design, and though it was a bit light on signage (perhaps because it had been put together by grad students at Case), the fabrics themselves were absolutely lovely, as you can hopefully see from the images below. It only took me about ten minutes to view, but it’s worth the detour if you’re here anyway. Good old CMA!

 

 

15 comments

  1. I would love to see an exhibit like this– it has medieval monsters AND funny marginalia drawn in by bored monks, which always works for me!

    1. I’ve seen quite a few exhibitions with illuminated manuscripts, but this one definitely had the best marginalia I’ve seen in person! I’ve yet to encounter a butt trumpet in the wild; I’ve only seen pictures online.

    1. That would have been back before they put in the atrium. I wasn’t happy with it at first, but it’s grown on me, especially now that they’ve properly reopened the rest of the museum. Construction took ages though, it seemed like parts of the museum were closed for at least a decade.

  2. Looks like a terrific exhibit. Medieval monsters and marginalia – doesn’t get any better!! Might even have been worth the 7 hour drive from Philly. I also really like the Swedish textiles. The Swedish Museum here has an exhibit of these (stuck in the basement/student classroom??) that is one of my favorite parts of the museum. IKEAish, but even better.

    1. It was a great exhibition, don’t get me wrong, but probably not worth a 14 hour round trip! Though I suppose there are other things to do in Cleveland, certainly more than there used to be. I’ll have to check out the Swedish Museum if/when I make it back to Philly (eventually I will)!

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