Imaginary creatures, from part-human or animal hybrids to entirely fantastic beasts, have captured the attention of artists since Greek and Roman antiquity. The human mind has a passionate longing for knowledge even of things past comprehension. Where it cannot know, the imagination supplies the void. For thousands of years, humans everywhere - sometimes inspired by living animals or even fossils - have brought mythic creatures to life in stories and songs. By exploring this folklore, we can learn more about different cultures that created them. Inspired by these myths and legends, a variety of artists spanning continents and centuries have given these creatures their visual form. Sometimes these works of art are the only surviving records of what particular cultures believed and valued, while others they perfectly complement written or oral traditions, adding to our understanding of myths and legends. From a powerful dragon and the soaring phoenix to unicorns, chimera, and succubus, art history is a veritable menagerie of these mythical and hybrid creatures. Today, these creatures continue to thrill, terrify, entertain, and inspire us, giving shape to humankind’s greatest hopes, fears, and most passionate dreams.
Imaginary, mythical, or legendary creatures have been part of human culture throughout the ages, inhabiting the mythology and folklore of civilizations from all around the world. While some of these creatures may have existed in the past, others are beyond normal reality, often being composites of existing animals or animals and humans. Usually having supernatural powers, they often bear more similarity to spiritual beings and are considered liminal, or inhabiting a borderland between the gods and humans, or between good and evil. There are also those that always had a more frightful aspect, having a colorful history of scaring people in many parts of the world. Often imbued with symbolism, these fabulous beasts also represented the virtues and vices of human nature, and the temptations into which human beings fall. In many cases, their actual existence was secondary to the moral of the tale in which they featured. Playing significant roles in human societies, these creatures represented values and norms, helped parents discipline their children, or served to stimulate the imagination and desire already ingrained in human nature.
Literary and cultural myths are not simply products of imagination, but also ingenious interpretations by pre-scientific minds. So pervasive was the belief in the power of mythic fauna in the Middle Ages, that they were emblazoned on all types of sacred and secular. The Bestiary, a collection of descriptions and interpretations of animals, intended for both a natural history and a series of moral and religious lessons, developed in medieval Europe in the twelfth century. Providing intriguing interpretations of animals and tales about the existence of bizarre creatures, these beautiful and imaginative collections served as a source for many artistic inventions. While dragons and unicorns have long topped the A-list of mythical animals, medieval bestiaries were also filled with an assortment of bizarre mythical monsters, animals, creatures, and hybrids, or even demons and ghosts that are scarcely remembered today, such as the amphivena, manticore, bonnacon, leucrota, or basilisk.
Springing from human imagination, creatures such as unicorns, sphinxes, fauns, mermaids, dragons, and griffins all appear in art everywhere and at all times. Drawing from mythology and folklore, artists have given these beasts a visual form or even created their own. To create fantastic creatures of the Middle Ages, artists often consulted a bestiary for real or imaginary examples that they then painted, carved, chiseled or cast. While relatively few imaginary creatures appear in biblical narratives, artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Grunewald, and Albrecht Durer invented some of art’s most fantastic and unearthly creatures as metaphors for earthly temptation and the terrors of hell. Bosch’s acclaimed moralistic painting the Garden of Earthly Delights is filled with the most bizarre, fantastical figures and surreal creatures to pictorialize the progression of sin and moral failing, and Matthias Grunewald’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony shows the saint’s faith triumphing over the temptations and horrors of sin and evil in the form of a variety of grotesque creatures. A seminal figure in the history of poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age, William Blake often depicted both existing and his own invented mythology in his paintings. His acclaimed series of watercolor paintings The Great Red Dragon Paintings painted between 1805 and 1810 depict a scene from the Book of Revelation. Working during the Enlightenment, the Swiss-English painter Johann Heinrich Füssli chose to depict darker, irrational forces in his famous painting The Nightmare. It shows a woman whose dream appears to take a frightening physical form in the shapes of the incubus sitting atop of her chest and the horse lurking from the dark.
Imaginary creatures, both friendly and devious, were also key to the worlds created by Surrealist artists such as Max Ernst, Victor Brauner, and Wifredo Lam. While Max Ernst was obsessed with bird-like creatures sourced from his dreams and the unconscious, Victor Brauner painted bizarre creatures with huge totemic heads attached to a variety of beings that were derived from the occult or private myths. Regarded as one of the last true Surrealist, Wilfredo Lam was a feverish painter of mythic canvases depicting gods, monsters, and mystery. Mythic creatures also served as an inspiration for the father of Cubism, Pablo Picasso. The theme of Minotaur was very close to the artist, as he apparently identified himself with this creature, its human and animal principle, locked in a maze, hidden from sunlight. This part-man-part-bull creature also inspired artists such as André Masson, Georges Bataille and Jackson Pollock.
With a genuine persistence of mythological thinking in the modern world, these mythical creatures continue to haunt the imaginations of contemporary artists. With mythology and folklore being a rich source of creativity and storytelling genius, contemporary artists are turning to this age-old treasure chest in order to construct or deconstruct these figures in their imaginations. Yet, artists today are more concerned with redescribing the implications of these creatures through their own experience, shaping them to become symbolic representations of contemporary ideas and events. Contemporary works of art drawn from mythology and folklore often reveal responses to societal stresses, such as social, political or environmental disorder. An Australian artist Patricia Piccinini explores how contemporary ideas of nature, the natural and the artificial are changing the society we live in. Addresses concerns about biotechnology, she creates weird and grotesque mutant sculptures out of silicone, fiberglass and human hair that present a possible future species that will interact with humans. The highly textured and detailed work of the street artist Alexis Diaz features fantastical and dreamlike depictions of animals in a state of metamorphosis. Always intriguing and complex, his creatures come from different species and habitats, often as hybrids between different examples of their own world. The artist sees them as a type of evolution in that specific ecosystem, creating creatures that he believes would survive in the world surrounding it. The colorful murals and paintings of Curiot feature mythical half-animal half-human figures which allude to Mexican folklore and traditions. Creating fantastic and modern interpretations of traditional mythology, the artist speaks about the careful balance between man and nature, reminding of the importance of the natural world. The artist Raqib Shaw paints canvases that suggest a fantastical world that celebrates a society free of any moral restraints. Populated with a wealth of hybrid creatures, Shaw fuses an array of vibrantly painted flora and fauna in an ecosystem inhabited by figures such as phallus-headed birds, bug-eyed butterfly catchers, reptilian warriors or monkeys holding parasols, anthropomorphic in their gestures and regalia. Mythical beasts and modern monsters never seem to fade from popular awareness. Their forms and meanings may vary over the centuries, but they seem to be embedded into our consciousness, inhabiting an archetypical realm. Even in our own technological and scientific age, they serve a desire for mystery and enchantment.
Editors’ Tip: Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art: With Special Reference to Their Use in British Heraldry by John Vinycomb
The human mind has a passionate longing for knowledge even of things past comprehension. Where it cannot know, it will imagine; what the mind conceives it will attempt to define. Are facts wanting, poetry steps in, and myth and song supply the void; cave and forest, mountain and valley, lake and river, are theatres peopled by fancy, and "as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name." Traditions of unreal beings inhabit the air, and will not vanish be they ever so sternly commanded; from the misty records of antiquity and the relics of past greatness, strange shapes look with their mute stony eyes upon a world that knows them but imperfectly.
Featured images: Peter Bruegel the Elder - The Fall of the Rebellious Angels; Detail of fifteenth-century tapestry, via newworldencyclopedia.org; Johann Heinrich Füssli - The Nightmare (detail), 1781; Max Ernst - The Barbarians, 1937; Left: Wifredo Lam - Satan, 1942 / Right: Raqib Shaw - Absence of God VIII, 2008, via pinterest.com; Patricia Piccinini – Young Family, 2002, via wierdfictionreview.com; Curiot Artwork, via museum.org; Alexis Diaz - Elephant Octopus mural, London, via goblinmag.com. All images used for illustrative purposes.