The Monkey Charmer – Amuse Bouche #27 (Dennis Aubrey)


Today’s amuse-bouche examines one specific use of the monkey in a medieval sculpture. We often see chained apes that are used to represent the animal in human nature. Often a man holds a rope to restrain the ape, just as Christianity preached the restraint of humanity’s animal nature. They were common enough that the great Bernard of Clairvaux railed against them in his Apologia – “To what purpose are those unclean apes, those fierce lions, those monstrous centaurs, those half-men, those striped tigers, those fighting knights, those hunters winding their horns?”

In the cathedral at Bayeux, however, we see something a bit less sententious – a wonderful 12th century image of a performer with his chained monkey. I think it is clear that this is a performing monkey with his trainer, both observed in the exotic east of the Crusades. The man signals to the animal who appears to respond.

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Bayeux, Bayeux (Calvados)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Bayeux, Bayeux (Calvados) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There exists, however, an alternate interpretation. The Reverend R. S. Mylne in his 19th century “The Cathedral Church of Bayeux and Other Historical Relics in its Neighborhood” posits “The devil in the disguise of a monkey with a face suggestive of a quick and lively intelligence is resting on the top of a pillar with an iron chain round his neck, and is apparently saying something uncanny to the brave warrior, who has the other end of the chain in his left hand, and holds up the fore-finger of his right hand as a warning to the evil spirit to desist.”

Mylne’s fertile imagination raged unchecked! He goes on to say “Be sure to notice the peculiar expression of both the faces, well carved in the hard stone. If the perplexed soldier has enchained the demon, yet his difficulties and trials are by no means over. The demon by dint of subtlety is still trying to get the upper hand. Does the soldier’s face suggest that he has some chance of success?” Mylne was active in the Society of Antiquaries and I’m sure that he kept his fellow antiquarians entertained with his observations.

We have seen enough evidence in medieval sculpture to suggest that the artists were perfectly capable of creating entertaining tableaux with no intent to moralize and it seems that entertaining pair of figures is one example. Whichever interpretation is correct, we have a wonderful amuse-bouche to spark our own imaginations.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

3 responses to “The Monkey Charmer – Amuse Bouche #27 (Dennis Aubrey)

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