A young girl with golden hair, naked, tied to a rock, looks away in fear from the fate that awaits her. At her feet, emerging from the churning waves, a terrifying sea orca that looks like a dragon is about to devour her. But then a knight riding a hippogriff – lion’s rump, eagle’s body, horse’s ears – swoops down on the monster and fatally pierces it with his lance… The painting by Dominique Ingres, Roger delivering Angelique (1819), is certainly inspired by an episode of Roland furious, epic poem from the 16th century.
But above all it declines the iconographic tradition of Saint George or Saint Michael slaying the dragon. Serpents and reptilian consorts embodying the evil that a mythical hero or a saint sauroctonus (from the Greek will know, “lizard”, and ctonos, “killer”) is responsible for eliminating people from the “Fantastic Beasts” exhibition at the Louvre-Lens museum. Thus in the painting by Johann Heinrich Füssli, Thor fighting the Midgard Serpent (1790), this 13th century episcopal crozier in enameled copper or this ivory handle of a 15th century squire’s knife…
But these fabulous saurians are not the only representatives of a bestiary fantasized by humans. From Mesopotamia to Greece via Egypt or Rome, sphinxes, centaurs, mermaids, winged bulls have abounded since Antiquity, in myths but also in Natural Historyby Pliny the Elder (1st century AD).
To the traditional categories of Greco-Roman zoology (quadrupeds, birds, fish, snakes, worms) is added that of monsters. And the science of life, until the Middle Ages, even the Renaissance, did not hesitate to include in its inventory of the animal world these beasts that it observed and those, chimerical, inherited from legends.
“It’s about not reading history through today’s lenses; we must distinguish between periods, at the risk, otherwise, of committing anachronisms, explains Michel Pastoureau, medievalist and signatory of the foreword to the catalog (1). However, at certain times, we do not oppose reality to imagination. Creatures like mermaids or griffins actually existed for people in the Middle Ages; As for the unicorn, it was not until the 17th century that we no longer believed in its existence. »
Nostalgia for the marvelous with fantastic animals
The whole point of the exhibition route designed by Hélène Bouillon, chief curator at the Louvre-Lens, is to show us that this fictional bestiary still inhabits our present and inspires literature just as much. fantasy and the world of video games as well as contemporary art.
Visual artists continue to produce new chimeras, such as Thomas Grünfeld with Misfit (Pig/Flamingo), sculpture of a pink flamingo with a porcine body, or Will Cotton with Roping a painting with offbeat humor where a cowboy, lasso in hand, rides a galloping pink unicorn.
Because in this age of high technological performance, fantastic animals express our nostalgia for the marvelous, resisting the eradication of poetry by the algorithm.
(1) Author of The whale. A cultural history, Ed. du Seuil, 160 p. ; €19.90.