The arts have been used throughout history to communicate ideas about religion, politics, every day life and even the unknown. Through music, dance, poetry, architecture, graphic arts, painting and sculpture, artists and artisans have been engaged in challenging and portraying the times or communities in which they live.

They do this through using things like imagery and colors to help portray messages that are included in the structures they help build or commissions they are asked to do.

A unique and dynamic exhibition is currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders “explores the complex social roles of monsters in the Middle Ages.”

On view through Oct. 6, the exhibit was organized by The Morgan Library & Museum in New York and features about 60 illuminated manuscripts from the Morgan’s collection. The exhibition includes devotional, liturgical and secular works spanning from the 800s to 1500s.

A selection of sculpture, prints and illuminated manuscripts from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection of antiquities and medieval art is also included in the show.

The exhibition is displayed in several galleries and the display is executed in a way that helps create a transportive experience. Wall colors and cases as well as textual “call outs” on the walls and well-designed, large informative labels help to tell a story that makes venturing into this exhibit interesting and fun.

The exhibition is broken into three parts: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders. “Terrors” is curated to demonstrate how monsters enhanced the power of the rulers and elites in Medieval society. A strong example from this part of the show is, Taming the Tarasque, from Hours of Henry VIII , it is an ink, tempera, and gold on vellum by Jean Poyer (France, active 1483–1503). This image portrays one of the miracles done by Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene, in which she subdues a dragon using holy water that was terrorizing the community around Tarascon in Provence.

The imagery is supposed to reinforce the power of the legend around Martha. In the work, Martha is shown with a leash in one hand that is tied around the dragon's neck and what appears to be a golden bucket of holy water in her other hand. Armed soldiers are shown fighting the dragon with crossbows and pikes and one unfortunate soldier is in the process of being eaten by the dragon.

It takes a moment to realize that this image depicts multiple parts of the story, all at once, so the timeline for events is not linear. The soldier being eaten, the soldiers fighting and Martha subduing the dragon could not possibly have happened all at the same time.

The style of the painting is detailed and expressive. Colors like red and gold are used to highlight the importance of the people in this legend as red was often used to highlight people of authority during the Medieval period.

The “Aliens” section has been curated to show how monsters were used to further alienate marginalized people from different religious backgrounds or races or even because they were somehow disabled. If you were different from what was considered normal, monsters were part of the type of imagery that would have been used to reinforce or call attention to your “differentness.”

Siren, from Les Abus du Monde, is an ink, tempera, and gold on vellum, c. 1510, by Pierre Gringore (French, c. 1475–1538). It is a strong example from this section of the exhibition. Female biology, throughout the Medieval period, was seen as shameful or even abnormal. Men were most often shown as victims of the feminine, not the other way around.

Siren, depicts a double-winged female monster with half a fish body and bird legs. She is holding a harp to help attract men with her song. The men are shown in various stages of distress in the water below the Siren. Judging by the men's clothing, they were clearly thought to be important people who were somehow taken in or tricked by this monster.

Upon close examination, this is a hilarious painting. The men in the water who are supposed to have expressions of illness or impending death have something more akin to “over acting” a death scene painted on their face. You can almost here shouts of “ahhh” or “eeek” as you look around the surface of this piece.

“Wonders,” the third section of this exhibition, is organized to show how depictions of monsters were used to inspire awe or wonder in their viewers. Sometimes things out of the real world found a use as a tool for this type of inspiration.

A narwhal tusk or horn from the Baltic Regions is on display because it was associated with the legend of the unicorns. The tusk grows in place of a tooth and during Medieval times it was thought to have healing powers. Important rulers owned them and even gave them away as diplomatic gifts. The tusk on display in Cleveland is quite impressive, as it is several feet long and looks every bit the unicorn horn if you did not know better.

This show has been advertised as the “the first exhibition of its kind in North America.” It offers an incredible opportunity to gain a stronger understanding of Medieval history in an intimate setting, through which a broader conversation can take place about the use of monsters in art from this time period and how that legacy has impacted world history and contemporary outlooks.