When I contemplated what to call this post, I was thinking about “medieval naivety”. Then I thought another round, and got comfortable with the idea that context is everything.
I’ve been reading literature on medieval grotesque lately. What strikes me as more important than pretty much anything – at least when it comes to the understanding of it, is that I have yet not found any art style that is as dependent on its context, as the medieval grotesque (actually, also grotesquerie previous to medieval times, too).
If we look at pretty much any grotesque piece of art from, say, the 12th century, we would likely find funny figures in the marigins of a bible or some other sort of religious book. Perhaps we’d find some funny statue or sculpture inside or outside a church. We’d probably look at it, smile or giggle a bit, and walk away thinking that oh, that’s adorable. Look, a little monkey climbing the page. Oh, look, a naked butt. Oh, a unicorn, or perhaps a dragon. Haha, oh, how cute they were back in those days, believing in all these things.
Now, I say nothing of these superficial interpretations of the medieval grotesque. Not everyone are interested in digging a bit deeper. Research and studies of (whatever subject) is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.
But when you are interested in it, once you’ve started to dig in (and I’m saying this because it’s happening to me right now), you realize there is so much more to it than you’d ever have imagined.
The medieval context, for example, is a world and society where religion is deeply indoctrinated. To us, this is damn near impossible to understand, since our perception of reality is so different. We understand the world through science rather than religion (if you’re not a hardcore believer of any religion), but back then – religion was the base of people’s view of the world. The bible was the most important book, and everything in it seeped through into every part of our lives.
The grotesque during the Middle Ages was more prone to humour and ridicule rather than horror. It started out that way already in Egypt, continuing through the greek and roman eras, and it wasn’t until the end of the Middle Ages and beginning of the Renaissance that the grotesque began expanding. It is, from our point of view, very easy to consider the grotesque expression naive and perhaps even inchoate.
But it is quite the contrary.
What we may not even be aware of, is the function of medieval grotesquerie. Mainly found in the marigins of books or manuscripts, or hidden away around churches and monestaries, the grotesque was used as a sort of commentary. In a book/manuscript, the illustrating grotesque could aid those who could not read, it could make funny points, point to mistakes in the text, et cetera.
When it comes to the grotesque in architecture, I’ll have to get back on that one, because architecture is not my strong suit.
To understand all of those pointers and humorous notes, it is necessary to understand the symbolism of that specific period.
Another point that could, and should, be made, is the question of beauty versus ugliness in the Middle Ages.
Ugliness is relative. There is ugliness only if there’s something to compare it to. The concept of beauty has changed through history, as have the idea and understanding of where it’s coming from. In the Middle Ages, beauty was thought to originate from God. The ideas about this were actually quite advanced. The baseline is that everything beautiful was created by God, and if something was ugly, it must be either evil by nature, or turned evil by some mistake.
And this is where it starts getting complicated.
First of all – remember how the grotesquerie in the Middle Ages is more fun and ridiculous, rather than terrifying?
Religious art contains imagery of evil. Grotesque art not necessarily so. Religious art is serious. Grotesque art is not. Yet both mirrors the period they were created in.
My own thoughts on the medieval grotesque is that while religion was the underlying base of life in general, the every day life of the working class in particular, was filled with the mundane. Most people probably couldn’t read, and that’s where art (and the priests) step in to show the stories rather than tell them. The grotesque was a way to fill in the blanks, just as much as to make funny points.
And this is where my idea of the medieval grotesque as naive, comes in. The aesthetic style, from our point of view, does in many ways come across as quite naive. Especially during the earlier centuries in the Middle Ages.
I’m also thinking (and I am not the only one) that the grotesque in this period, must have been much of what cartoons are for us. A commentary of society, done in a way that one really must have a deep understanding of the time, to get it.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I haven’t really said much about anything, other than the fact I find it important to learn the context before trying to understand any piece of art. Of course, the understanding of art differs from whatever theory and method one chooses to use, and the level of interest and engagement one has.
But again – context is everything. With everything, but more so with art grotesque than most other art styles. It’s complicated and tricky, and really, really interesting.
So if nothing else, perhaps I’ve sparked your interest and maybe you’ll even find yourself getting books about art grotesque. If you find a good one – please let me know. I’m good at researching good literature, but it never hurts to get tips.