Teratology in the 18th C: Monsters and Artists

In 1775, French artists Nicolas-François and Geneviève Regnault published the influential ‘Les Ecarts de la nature ou recueil des principales monstruosités‘ (The Deviations of Nature or a Collection of the Main Monstrosities). Tapping into centuries old scientific, ethnographic, and cosmographic interpretive traditions of “the monstrous”, François and Regnault were guided by poet Boileau’s idea that “no monster exists that cannot be made pleasing through art”. This marks an important moment in teratology i.e the study of perceived abnormalities in the natural world, both real and imagined. Perceptions, whether individual or societal, of deviations from the norm hold a place of academic interest for me, for they are often lensed with an entire arsenal of valuations of what is acceptable and what is not. The term “monster”, which is derived from the Latin verb “monstrare” meaning “to show”, was used to describe a visually unusual creature from about the 1st century B.C. onward. Classical interpretations of “the monstrous” were to remain influential until the end of the 17th century. Then came the ‘aesthetization’ of the monstrous along with the coming of Christianity, when authors began interpreting such phenomena as having been brought forth by God to communicate divine judgments. By the end of the Middle Ages, unusual natural occurrences were increasingly perceived as “wonders,” or “prodigies”, terms which all focused on their strange and exceptional character. Wonders were seen as signs of God’s anger, or a sign of the power of nature, inspiring fear or admiration depending on the religious and political context.

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