Apes in Medieval Art

Apes are the closest relatives of humans in the animal world. They look like us, yet they are completely different. The ambiguity between the form and behavior of apes over humans was the main reason why they were used as a mirror of positive and/or negative behavior in both literary and artistic representations throughout history. Apes may appear as emblems of usury or lust, but they can also appear as symbols of social status. Even when the apes are represented with positive traits, there seems to be an element of mischief or malice in the image. Throughout the Middle Ages, the ape was widely represented at the margins of medieval art, whether in the capital of a church or in illuminated manuscripts. Its image and symbolism underwent dramatic changes throughout the Middle Ages, especially after apes appeared more frequently in medieval cities in the early 12th century.

Before describing the way in which apes were represented in medieval art, it is important to acknowledge the fact that their form was nurtured not only by textual sources that could be traced back to the Classical period, but also by first-hand observation of specimens which began to be introduced in Western Europe following the opening of trade routes with the Near East (Janson 1952, 30-31, 49). In the Mediterranean basin the most common ape was, and still is, the tailless Barbary ape of Gibraltar, but they also knew about the baboons of Egypt and the African-tailed monkeys, such as the mantled guereza, and the colobinae of India. All of them will become a reference for artists to created images of apes in medieval art.

As a norm, apes are usually represented with the body covered in hair, a flat nose and an extremely prominent mouth. In some examples, the ape appears as a symbol of extreme ugliness and as such may be represented as a deformed and ugly human being. In the Bestiaries, the female ape is usually represented next to her progeny, as a rule twins, with one hanging from her neck and the other in her arms, while they are being pursued by a hunter. In sculpture, the ape is shown crouching and shackled with a chain tied around the neck, which sometimes is held by a man, a hunter, or a minstrel. As an exception, the ape can appear with wings as part of the iconography of the Temptations of Christ. Nevertheless, it is on the margins of illuminated manuscripts where the ape appears in a greater variety of scenes either parodying the actions of human beings, showing tricks learned from the minstrels, as part of the visual representation of a fable or moralizing text, or fighting birds. From the 13th century on, there are numerous highly realistic depictions of different types of apes, responding in this case more to zoological curiosity rather than an attempt to give it moral or symbolic content. Throughout the Middle Ages, the symbolic function of the ape changed as much as their visual representation.

1.Winged Ape-Devil in the Temptations of Christ. Puerta de las Platerías. Catedral de Santiago de Compostela (Spain). c. 1101-1111. Photo credit: Fco. De Asís García García.

Winged Ape-Devil in the Temptations of Christ. Puerta de las Platerías. Catedral de Santiago de Compostela (Spain). c. 1101-1111. Photo credit: Fco. De Asís García García.

Unlike other visual motifs, the ape can be considered to be a universal figure in the art of the Middle Ages and, as such, was represented in numerous works in Western Europe. Even though many of the works produced during the early Christian period have disappeared, scholars have been able to identify two works that probably had an early Christian model: the illustrations accompanying Psalm 77 in the Stuttgart Psalter (Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Ms. Cod 23) created in the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century and the baptismal font created by Master Roberto for the Church of San Frediano in Lucca, Italy, in the late 12th century. In the Stuttgart Psalter, the ape is represented next to a satyr, both of them symbolized the malevolent Egyptian forces blocking the way to the salvation of the Israelites. Similarly, the ape represents the land of darkness (Egypt) at the scene of the meeting between the Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses in the baptismal font of San Frediano. In a similar manner, at the Puerta de las Platerías in Santiago de Compostela in Spain (ca. 1101-1111), a winged ape embodies the image of the devil himself as he tempted Christ in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). It seems like the connection between apes and the devil was present in the Physiologus, a didactic text created in the 2nd century CE in Alexandria that consists of descriptions of animals, birds, and fantastic creatures with moral content, a connection that was later on exploited by Patristic commentators that attached this symbolism to the image of the ape. In the early 12th century this view was challenged by the introduction of live apes in medieval cities as a result of the opening of trade routes to the Middle East. The connection between the devil and the ape was then questioned by the physical presence of apes in Europe, and it was soon to be overshadowed in the early 12th century by a much more human interpretation where the ape appears as the image of man, but a distorted image that presents him in a state of degeneration—a result of his sinful nature (Walker 2013, 68). This new interpretation will influenced the function of the visual representations of apes.

Mother Ape with Young Pursued by Hunters. Bestiary. Salisbury (?) (England). Second half of the 13th century. London, The British Library, Ms. Harley 4751, fol. 11r.

Mother Ape with Young Pursued by Hunters. Bestiary. Salisbury (?) (England). Second half of the 13th century. London, The British Library, Ms. Harley 4751, fol. 11r.

With the revival of Classical knowledge, the Bestiary, a compendium of beasts based on the Physiologus amongst other Classical texts, became very popular in France and England during the 12th century, and with them the image of the mother ape with her twins pursued by the hunter. This story, considered real, replaced the ape-devil theory and took on a symbolic dimension through the exempla (moral anecdotes used in sermons). In this case, the exempla gave this story a new twist when it symbolically connected the mother ape with the sinner who loved material riches (embodied in the beloved young that she holds in front of her) over spiritual riches (embodied in the neglected young that is trying to hold unto her neck) (Crane 1890, 9). The hunters in turn could symbolically represent the devil who hunts the sinner and takes him to hell, or they could even represent death, something very consistent with the concept of memento mori of the Late Middle Ages. Later on, the ape will end up symbolizing vices in general. This image was the most widely represented in the Bestiary manuscripts. This scene also appeared in sculpture as well with similar moral connotations. An example can be seen in a capital of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa in northern Spain and in another one at the Abbey of Mozac in France from the 12th century.

1.Alpha with Ape and Fox. The Beatus of Saint-Sever (France). c. 1072. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Lat. 8878, fol. 14r.

Alpha with Ape and Fox. The Beatus of Saint-Sever (France). c. 1072. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Lat. 8878, fol. 14r.

It is also at this time that Europe witnessed a renaissance of the fable tradition, initiated by Aesop in ancient Greece in the 6th century BCE. In these fables the ape appears as a trickster (Janson 1952, 39). An example of this can be seen in the image of the ape asking the lion to become the king of the animals in the margins of the Bayeux Tapestry (scene 5) created in Normandy around the tenth century (Musset 2005, 23). In the Alpha folio of the Beatus of Saint-Sever, created in circa 1050-1070 in France (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Lat. 8878), an ape and a fox flank the top of the letter, probably a reference to the story in Aesop’s Fables. It is also quite possible that one of the capitals of San Martín of Frómista in Spain (12th century), in which a fox, a bird, and a monkey are represented, can also be related to a fable.

The image of the crouching apes with chains made its appearance for the first time in the Romanesque capitals of northern Spain such as those located in Loarre, the Cathedral of Huesca, San Quirce, Silos and Jaca (Olivares 2012, 143-176), which influenced those of St. Gilles-du-Gard and others in France. In this case, the chained ape can be connected not only to Christian thought, but also to the Islamic Eschatological tradition that also relates the ape with sinners and the devil—a tradition that could have been brought to the north of Spain by the hand of Muslim artists working in Christian territories (Monteira 2005, 106). Even in this context, these figures are interpreted as symbols of vice, especially usury or lust. In addition, these chained apes have also been identified with the figures of the damned in hell.

1.Crouching Apes in Chains. Capital in the apse of the Church of San Quirce, Burgos (Spain). First half of the 12th century. Photo credit: Fco. De Asís García García.

Crouching Apes in Chains. Capital in the apse of the Church of San Quirce, Burgos (Spain). First half of the 12th century. Photo credit: Fco. De Asís García García.

From the 13th to the 16th centuries, most of the representations of apes appeared in the margins of manuscripts, especially in Psalters, Books of Hours and some Bibles in France, England, and Italy. In these examples the apes are parodying human actions, fighting birds, or showing some folk knowledge of these animals. It has been postulated that these marginal scenes, confusing and sometimes monstrous in nature, favored a more spiritual approach to the text (Wirth 2008). By participating in all kinds of reprehensible, obscene, and ridiculous behavior intended to make people laugh, these images provided a greater emphasis to the moral sense of the accompanying text. In addition, in the margins of these manuscripts, there seems to have been a new interest in the accuracy of the physical representation of the ape. This trend will continue in the 15th and 16th centuries, where the ape is depicted in portraits of ladies and gentlemen as a symbol of social status. Moreover, the imitative nature of the ape and its satirical function acquired a didactic raison d’être and, as a result, its iconography has survived well into the 21st century.

1.Apes Parodying the Church. Psalter. Ghent (Flanders). ca. 1320-1330. Oxford, the Bodleian Library, Ms. Douce 6, fol. 17v.

Apes Parodying the Church. Psalter. Ghent (Flanders). ca. 1320-1330. Oxford, the Bodleian Library, Ms. Douce 6, fol. 17v.


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This paper was given at the International Medieval Congress, Leeds, July 11-14, 2011, during the round-table discussion devoted to the ape, organized by the Medieval Animal Data-network.

To cite this post : Mónica A. Walker Vadillo, “Apes in Mediaval Art”, Medieval Animal Data Network (blog on Hypotheses.org), October, 28th, 2013. [On line] http://mad.hypotheses.org/172

Mónica A. Walker Vadillo holds a Ph.D. (Cum Laude) in the History of Art (Medieval) from Complutense University (Madrid, Spain) as well as two M.A.s in Medieval Studies from the Central European University (Budapest, Hungary) and Art History from the University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida). She was the recipient of a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Digital Humanities in 2011 at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and now she is Assistant Professor (Term) of Medieval Art History at the Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville (Kentucky). Her research interests are focused on medieval iconography and manuscript illumination, more specifically on the iconography of women, animals and space. In addition, she also studies the way contemporary culture has appropriated and transformed medieval art and culture in areas such as comic books and graphic novels.

Personal webpage : http://louisville.academia.edu/MonicaAnnWalkerVadillo

Monica Walker-Vadillo’s other posts

Cite this blog post
Mónica Ann Walker Vadillo (2013, October 28). Apes in Medieval Art. Medieval Animal Data-Network. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/r5f1

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