Beginning with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, or Medieval Period, extended from the 5th century to the late 15th century AD. This period sits in the “middle” between two other periods in Western history: classical antiquity and the modern period.
Characterized by an initial collapse in centralized authority and a shift toward Feudalism, as well as mass migrations of people, invasions, wars (think: the Crusades and the Hundred Years’ War), famine, and plague, the Medieval period can be considered one of darkest in Western history. Hence, the alternate name, the Dark Ages, as Europe was certainly in disarray.
Medieval Drawings: Stylized, Devotional, and Symbolic
Throughout the Middle Ages, drawings, paintings, sculpture, and other medieval artwork was extremely devotional and stylized. Medieval drawings, especially, were often created by craftsmen as initial plans for paintings or buildings that glorified God. Monks, too, took to drawing to illustrate their religious texts. During this time, starting in the 12th century, Gothic drawings and architecture flourished in the High and Late Middle Ages.
Until the 15th century, drawings were typically created on panels (few of which still survive today), as parchment was expensive. However, drawing began to change at the turn of the 15th century, when paper became a cheaper alternative to parchment.
Drawings were most importantly used to adorn books in the Medieval Period, and had a symbolic relationship with writing. They existed in various forms; they decorated bound manuscripts, classical texts, independent sheets, legal documents, maps, and charts. Both real and imaginary, medieval drawings were used to depict the natural and man-made world, cosmology, exotic animals, and scientific studies, among other subjects.
Particularly strange and grotesque medieval sketches, known as ‘marginalia‘, can be found in the margins of manuscripts and other text books. Seen as time capsules from the Middle Ages, manuscripts filled with these doodles or drawings in the margins “tell us huge amounts about a book’s history and the people who have contributed to it, from creation to the present day,” according to Johanna Green, Lecturer in Book History and Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow.
Sometimes the meaning of marginalia is clear, while at other times, it’s not. Unusual marginalia include depictions of centaurs or other human-animal hybrids, knights fighting snails (yes, you read that correctly), naked bishops, monkeys playing bagpipes, and beyond, making them both a bizarre and fascinating subgenre of medieval drawing.
10 drawings that epitomize scary medieval art: From strange skeletons to creepy marginalia
Creepy marginalia included, there are several examples of medieval sketches that make up the weird medieval art we tend to gawk at. Just in time for Halloween, below are some of the scariest and weirdest examples of medieval drawings known today. Get a taste of the Dark Ages – at your own risk.
1. Taddeo Gaddi’s “The Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple,” c. 1332-38
Currently hanging at the Louvre, this dark and eery Taddeo Gaddi religious drawing was created between the years 1332-38. Tilted “The Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple,” an extremely rare preparatory study for a Trecento fresco in the Baroncelli Chapel in the church of Santa Croce, Florence.
Extremely complex and a famed work of the Italian Renaissance, we dubb this piece particularly spooky due to its ghost-like human renderings, violent contracts between dark and light (similar to chiaroscuro), and the technique behind it: a combination of paper prepared with dyed ground bone powder and a metal point.
2. Skeleton drawing, late 13th century
This late 13th-century skeleton drawn on pen and ink parchment currently resides in the Basel University Library. It’s an illustration that complements scientific text in a Provençal manuscript during the Middle Ages. With its upside down head and strange stance, we think you’ll agree that this is some weird medieval art.
3. Anatomical illustration, c. 1292
This anatomical illustration from 1292 showing bright red human veins, also part of a scientific text, is certainly spooky. Drawn with colored ink on parchment, it can be found in the Oxford Bodleian Library.
4. Drawing of two soldiers killing a man and a dragon, c. 875
At last, in the spirit of Halloween, we have a depiction of a death scene: two soldiers killing a man and a dragon. This extremely early drawing, from c. 875, was done with ink on parchment, and can be found in the British Library in London. It comes from a legal codex – an ancient manuscript text in book form – produced in the north of France.
5. Wild animals at war in the Breviary of Renaud and Marguerite de Bar, c. 1302-1305
Need some Halloween costume inspiration, anyone? A prime example of the marginalia we mentioned earlier, this nightmarish drawing shows two rabbits at war. One holds a dog with a shield on its shoulders, while the other rides a snail with a human head. Drawn c. 1302-1305, it’s an example of a Gothic drawing that can be found today in the French manuscript, Breviary of Renaud and Marguerite de Bar, in the British Library in London.
6. Two headless men in the Summer volume of the Breviary of Renaud and Marguerite de Bar, c. 1302-1305
Headless Horseman, make room for some headless swordsmen. Also found in the Breviary of Renaud and Marguerite de Bar, the summer volume, and from the same time period as the above example, this strange drawing features two fighting men holding their own heads while balancing on a vine. This spooky medieval work can be found in the Bibliothèque municipale of Verdun, France.
7. An evil rabbit from the Gorleston Psalter, c. 1310-24
This marginalia drawing shows yet another killer rabbit. About to behead an old nobleman, the reader certainly doesn’t get warm and fuzzy feelings while looking at this text. Also found in the British Library, it was drawn around 1310-1324 for the notable manuscript, Gorleston Psalter, which contained early music instruction and ‘humorous’ marginalia.
8. Mythical beasts found in the Rutland Psalter, c. 1260
Reminiscent of creatures found in Harry Potter, this marginalia drawing shows a three-headed beast about to be stabbed by the horn of a ‘unicorn-goat-snail.’ Also found today in the British Library in the Rutland Psalter manuscript, this one also gives us some good – albeit complex – Halloween costume ideas.
9. A sad dog trapped by a four-armed, two-headed creature, c. 1310-1324
Here, we have another example of weird medieval art, shown in a manuscript from c. 1310-1324 and found today in the British Library. This one shows a double-headed, four-armed creature roping a sad dog.
10. A medieval knight fighting a snail in Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor, c. 1315-1325
This marginalia illustration was drawn c. 1315-1325 in Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor, or the Book of Treasures, which was a series of manuscripts with encyclopedic knowledge of the day.
The Smithsonian Magazine shows off this example of a knight fighting a snail in its 2013 article, “Why Were Medieval Knights Always Fighting Snails?” And the answer to that is: nobody really knows. According to the British Library, where this manuscript is kept today, this scene could depict the Resurrection. According to Digital Medievalist, Lisa Spangenberg, however, “the armored snail fighting the armored knight is a reminder of the inevitability of death.”
On that uplifting note, we hope these intriguing and strange pieces of medieval art put you in the Halloween spirit – or sparked an interest to go dive deeper into the strange world of marginalia. Happy hunting!