Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mythology’s Impact on the Unseen Creatures

                                                                                  Introductory Text
This exhibition, Mythology’s Impact on the Unseen Creatures, presents six medieval artworks containing various kinds of mythological looking creatures along with Albrecht Durer’s Rhinoceros as the centerpiece. The five other artworks featured in the exhibition are: Cristofano di Michele Martini’s Hercules and the Hydra, a Spanish Lion Fresco from the 1200’s, A King Pursued by a Unicorn; from the Unicorn Series by Jean Duvet, an unknown fragment of tapestry from the 1400’s, and The Sixth Day by Johannes Sadeler I. Often times, as is commonly seen throughout art history, Current beliefs, fears, and constructs of a society do influence the way the artists of the society depict things, especially those of the unknown or unseen. Mythology’s Impact on the Unseen Creatures explores this phenomena by showing depictions from the medieval times of various scenes containing animals of the medieval time period that had not yet been seen by all but had been recreated in art, some were actually myth while others were just rarely seen animals that were represented with many mythological aspect included. This exhibition explores why this use of mythological aspects in the representation of animals was so often used. Specifically the exhibition focuses on why and how the history and influence of these mythical creatures portrayed by so many other artists shaped the way Albrecht Dürer designed his rhinoceros. 

Extended Object Labels
 Cristofano di Michele Martini (after Antomio Pollaiuolo), Hercules and the Hydra, ca.1500-1520, Engraving, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 27.20.2.
This engraving demonstrates the sort of myths and tales that were popular or influential at the time and how the mythical creatures in them were typically portrayed. The creatures in these images of mythical tales were usually very fierce and generally had either scales, some sort of twisting horn(s), multiple heads, various parts of different animals and/or humans combined in to one, or all of the above. It is images such as this that seem to have influenced the extravagantly fantastical portrayals of newly discovered or rarely seen animals.

Jean Duvet, A King Pursued by a Unicorn, from the Unicorn Series, ca.1555, Engraving, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 51.570.
This engraving is another example of the mythology of the time. People believed their to be creatures in existence called unicorns. Later it was discovered that these horns were really from narwals, not unicorns. Clearly though, for a time, as seen in this engraving, unicorns were seen as being violent, most likely due to their ambiguity. People didn’t know anything about these creatures therefore they are afraid of them and imagined them as being terrifying and powerful. 

Unknown, Fragment of a Tapestry or Wall Hanging, ca.1420–30, Tapestry weave: wool on linen, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,  1990.211.
Little is known about this piece, but it appears to look much like a lion. It is possible that this could be the first impression someone, who’d never seen a lion before in their life, had of the beast. What is clear however, is that this is yet another fanciful beast which has the many of key characteristics of a mythical beast as seen in the Hercules and the Hydra. It has mixed animal parts: mane like a lion, scales like a reptile, talons like an eagle, and a head like a dragon.

Unknown, Lion, after 1200, Fresco, mounted on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 31.38.1a, b.
This work shows the effects of mythology quite clearly in it’s representation. This sort of lion was thought to be real at the time and lions of this sort of likeness were even found in Topsell’s book representing all the animals believed to be in existence “The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents Woodcuts”.  This too has some of the qualities of a typical mythological beast, namely it’s mixed features. It’s face appears to be similar to that of a humans, it’s feet more representational of hooves rather than paws, and it’s main has an almost scale-like appearance.

Johannes Sadeler I, The Sixth Day: The Creation of Animals, Adam and Eve from The Creation of the World, late 16th century, Engraving, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 51.501.1769(7).
This work is an example of how mythology was applied to the representation of events that no one alive has ever seen, in this case the creation. Because of it’s mystery, and the little that is known about it visually, the artist simply applied the commonly understood and accepted mythology of the time by including such things as unicorns, the strange lion seen above, creatures seen in Topsell’s “The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents Woodcuts”, and various other mythological beasts. It would seem then that mythological characteristics were commonly used to fill the gaps of the unknown.

Albrecht Dürer, The Rhinoceros, 1515, woodcut, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 19.73.159

After having looked at all the other artworks it is clear to see how even Albrecht, in all his precision of animal representation, was influenced by the mythology in the culture of his time. Albrecht did not see the animal himself, he only saw a rough sketch and a description of it. Inevitably then, he filled in the blanks of the unknowns with mythology. The mythological traits conveyed in this rhinoceros are the scales, the twisting unicorn like horn, and the eye which is eerily similar to that of a human.

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