Medieval art can look weird and funny to us today. Like art today, it was a product of its environment and influenced by many factors, such as the lack of realistic techniques, the symbolic meanings of animals and objects, and the cultural and religious beliefs of the people who made it. The main reason why medieval artists painted such strange pictures was that they did not have access to real animals or plants. They had to rely on descriptions from books, such as bestiaries, which were collections of information about different creatures. These books often used exaggerated or fantastical features to illustrate their points, such as lions with human faces or musical instruments.
From the 14th century we have the “Luttrell Psalter”, a medieval illuminated manuscript created in England around 1325-1340. One of its remarkable features is the inclusion of whimsical and sometimes grotesque marginalia. In one instance, there is a drawing of a knight, depicted as if engaged in a serious jousting tournament, but his opponent is a giant snail. The exact meaning behind this illustration is unclear, but it has sparked various interpretations, ranging from satire to symbolic representations. Another example from the 13th century is the “Smithfield Decretals”, a collection of papal decrees and canon law, produced in France during the 13th century. In the margins of some pages, there are illustrations that include humorous scenes. One notable example is a drawing of a medieval "rabbit scribe" holding a quill and seemingly writing. This imaginative depiction adds a touch of humor to the serious context of the manuscript. Yet another example “The Maastricht Hours”, a medieval book of hours created in the 14th century contains various illustrations and illuminations, including some amusing marginalia. One is a drawing of a man poking his head through a hole in the page, creating the illusion of him emerging from the manuscript. These types of playful interactions demonstrate the creativity and humor of medieval scribes and artists.
It's important to note that the exact meaning behind these drawings is often speculative, as medieval artists and scribes didn't always leave explicit explanations for their creations. The humor in these drawings may have been intended for the amusement of the readers or as a form of personal expression by the artists.
Fast forward to the 21st century, now these types of humor are everywhere. Who did not see the 4 ladies having a drink meme: the “lady with a pearl earring”, Monalisa, Frida Kahlo and Venus posing with a drink in front of Van Gaugh´s stary night. Or a photo of Abraham Lincoln with the quote “don’t believe everything you read on the internet”. These are the descendants of the humorous marginalia asides of medieval scribes.
Now we are not limited by what the human imagination can do. AI can create images that widens the boundaries of possibilities. But the basic concepts remain, a human need to express something – whether satirical, or humorous, or just plain silly – in a way that can leave the viewer guessing. Confounding as those medieval images are to us now, the tradition continues, and in five hundred years’ time, our great-great-great- many times over grandchildren will be just as confused yet will still be making their own brand of the irreverent and the absurd.
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