Tucked among the mostly religious art objects of the Brummer Collection, the figure of the "wild man" offers a glimpse of a distinctly secular brand of medieval visual culture. Popular in medieval art, literature, and pageantry, wild men stood for a primitive race, a hybrid of man and beast. Wild men and their wild women were hairy hermits who lived in caves, wielded clubs, and uprooted trees for weapons. The antithesis of civilized society, wild people, for the most part, were feared and despised.
But by the later Middle Ages, attitudes toward wild people evolved. Thanks to humanistic-based philosophies emerging in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe, wild people began to be viewed in a more favorable light. Instead of denigrating their coarse ways, art and literature began to emphasize their strength, endurance, and ability to survive in the wilderness. Long the objects of derision, wild people grew to represent a utopian lifestyle liberated from societal constraints.
The Nasher Museum of Art's wild man, circa 1500, is armed with a staff and shield covered with coarse bark. Thick tufts of fur cover his body, and unruly locks of hair spring from his beard and head. When wild men carried heraldic gear like this statue's shield, their legendary strength and power was thought to protect the noble family or guild represented by the coat of arms displayed on the device.
Although no coat of arms identifies this statue's patron or locale, the sculpture's rough, red sandstone offers scholars a clue to its provenance. The wild man most likely came from a city along the Rhine River between Speyer and Basel, a region well known for red-sandstone architecture and representations of wild men on coats of arms. The figure's pose and the sculptor's attention to detail on the front suggest that the wild man was originally installed in a niche or against a wall, hiding its back from view.
Wild and Wooly
Selections from the Nasher Museum of Art
November 30, 2004