Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Magnificent Monsters of Anthony the Abbot

On a trip to Antwerp over a week ago, we visited a few interesting places, like the excellent MAS (Museum aan de Stroom), with a rich combination of four collections stretching from anthropology (international and local) to local history. And Antwerp has a illustrious history as the greatest and richest port of Europe in the late Middle Ages.

A 17th century interpretation by Antwerp painter David Teniers
You can still find many remains of that golden age around the city, and one of the best places is the Mayer van den Bergh house, which holds a small but excellent collection of medieval and early modern art. The collector after whom the house is named started to buy all these art objects on business trips. He didn't think like a museum director, pursuing a direction and filling in gaps, but bought what was available through local traders and other collectors, all based on his personal preferences.

This means there is stuff from the Low Countries down to France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy and the objects range from religious objects to bourgeois furniture. I stood amazed watching a piece of beautifully crafted ivory from the 10th century, which had been carved in the back of an Byzantine original from a century earlier.

The Dulle Griet
But the top stuff are a couple of paintings by Pieter Bruegel, the most famous being the Dulle Griet, an apocalyptic view with an armed and armoured women carrying her spoils across it. I easily spent a quarter of an hour enjoying this.

But there's another bit that I found interesting, which were a couple of paintings showing the temptation of Anthony the Abbot, one of the founders of the Christian monasterial tradition. It was a theme I hadn't noticed before, but which happens to have been popular in the Middle Ages, but also inspired Dali.

Bruegel's take on the temptations of Anthony the Abbot

The reason why I was so interested is because it shows contemporary views on what monsters and demons would look like and I am fascinated. The monsters are all a bit comical, rather than scary. There´s a brilliant site on Anthony with lots of illustrations of paintings over the ages. Below I post one from 1490 that I actually like best, because it is so different from contemporary paintings. The colours are so bold and the monsters so stylised! It made me think of Indian art.

Giovanni Pietro da Birago, ca 1490. Incredible

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