Grotesquery 101 (Mmm… Marginalia #21)

The week of the election, I posted an image of two knights and their respective ladies.  Astute readers pointed out that the ladies were not ladies at all, but half-human hybrids, clearly some sort of draconic centaurs.  In general, I’m hesitant to ascribe any special meaning to these half-breeds.   The first time you see a bishop with a dog’s body or trumpets growing out of his ears, for example, you’re convinced you’ve found something shockingly sacriligeous, a clear indict of the corruption of the church.  But after you’ve seen that bishop’s head attached to roosters, donkeys, camels, dragons, gryphons, and, yes, even monkeys, you are forced to admit that sticking bishop’s heads on things was probably about as edgy as putting one of those pissing Calvin stickers in the back window of your pickup truck.

These days, it takes a really spectacularly weird hybrid for me to sit up and take notice.  Like this one, for instance, found in a thirteenth-century Beglain psalter (Pierpont Morgan Library MS M 155):

Ok, at first glance it’s just your average dragon with a gloved hand holding a chalice for a head. It’s only when we zoom out that the thing gets really weird:*

Look past the giant ornamental tail graft this beast has been given (again, ho hum stuff) and up at the normal dragon in the upper margin.  It’s almost like the illuminator is giving us a before and after shot, or a little tutorial on how grotesques are made.  Take a normal household dragon, he seems to say.  Any old dragon will do.  (In a pinch, you can use one of the dragons you’re using as line-filler in the main text.)  Now, chop off the dragon’s head and replace it with whatever you have lying around.  Do the same with his tail.  Voila: instant puzzle for people to ponder some seven hundred years from now.**

[UPDATE] Another astute reader (one named after a pasta product apparently) asked if this image had anything to do with the main text. In general, my answer to all such questions is “probably not.” There are scholars (Michael Camille, Lillian Randall, R. Howard Bloch) who have devoted lots of time to explaining how marginalia is deeply meaningful commentary to the text, but my own view is that the marginal images usually comment more on other images than on the text. This is not to say that there is never any editorial or critical comment going on–in fact, when they do comment, the illuminators are incisive and hilarious–just that these cases are the exception, not the rule.

But the psalm on the page here is Psalm 128, which goes like this:

I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart; before the “gods” I will sing your praise. I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. When I called, you answered me; you made me bold and stouthearted. May all the kings of the earth praise you, O LORD, when they hear the words of your mouth. May they sing of the ways of the LORD, for the glory of the LORD is great. Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes, with your right hand you save me. The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your love, O LORD, endures forever—-do not abandon the works of your hands.

As you can see, there’s a lot here about both hands and being made. So, at the least, this illuminator probably caught the word hand in the main text and decided to build a grotesque around a hand, or add one to a grotesque he’d already started.***  And perhaps this may even confirm my initial reading of the two images. This illuminator sees a passage praising God’s creation of man and decided to put on a clinic demonstrating his own creative process.

*My apologies for the resolution of the second image. The Pierpont Morgan Library is a bit stingy with image size.
**Or, possibly, this is evidence of the shoddiness of medieval matter transporter technology. You never know what’s going to step off the pad when medieval Scotty beams you up.

***Though the hand he drew looks to me like a left hand, not a right.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • miss rika

    Thought you ought to know; I posted this link to my sister, who contributes these captions:



    There is no need to thank me.

  • Deirdre

    Since you brought up Star Trek and a chalice, you might enjoy this:

  • EK Black

    I notice that the dragon isn’t winged. Is this normal, or has the artist already had some medieval-style ‘Shopping fun with the flight capabilities of guinea pig dragon?

  • Got Medieval

    Medieval dragons come in a variety of shapes and sizes. This one you’ve correctly identified as the Pygmy Red, whose primary habitat is the white space at the end of lines. Obviously, the dragons at top and bottom are Giant Pygmy Reds.

  • Macaroni

    Do the marginal drawings seem to comment on the psalm text at all, like, is that the “hand of the lord” coming out of the body of the dragon-enemy at the bottom?

    And, since I’m working on the canticles to a glossed psalter, a more selfish question: Does this Psalter contain the canticles? btw, here is “my” psalter. Sadly, no marginal drawings, just lots and lots of text…

  • Got Medieval

    Macaroni: You’re in luck. The MS does have the canticles, starting at fol. 149r. I’ve added a link to the digitized MS back to the main post.

    But to answer your other question, surprisingly, yes–so I’m going to add that to the main post, too.

    Dierdre: Thank you for that. I’m need to add Wil’s blog back to my Google reader.

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