Those Drunken Monkeys – Monkeying around in art from Medieval times

In the Medieval period, monkeys were a stand in for depraved humanity, often appearing in the margins of illuminated manuscripts.

The prayer book written for Charles V. of Austria by his mistress, had, on every page, monkeys mimicking religious ceremonies, in the most incongruous manner.

(So much of that sentence gives one pause.)

Monkey Business

Detail from a full strew border of a monkey playing bagpipes, from the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library, Additional 18851, f. 13

The Breviary created for Queen Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) features monkeys playing the bagpipes, playing games, hunting, spinning, eating and drinking, and even doing a bit of D.I.Y. on the borders.

Apes getting up to hi-jinks in the margins is so common that they act as a kind of tag for their illuminators.

If you spot an ape sitting in a green wicker basket and playing the bagpipes , probably ‘the Owl-illuminator’ (15th century) was ‘ere.

An unusually helpful ape, picking (and eating) fleas from a human head is a calling card of ‘the Caesar Master’.

The contemporary sweeping term for animal antics in medieval margins is probably babuini (Latin) or babewyn (Middle English), meaning ‘baboon-like’ or ‘monkey-business’.


The very person of the devil

Detail of an ape riding a goat (both animals noted for being lascivious) and looking at part of the Athanasian Creed (‘Perfectus deo perfectus homo’ – ‘Perfect God, perfect man’), from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), c. 1300-c. 1325, Stowe MS 17, f. 81v

According to the early Christian Physiologus, (between 2nd and 5th century) the monkey represents “the very person of the devil” since he has a beginning but no end i.e. no tail.

“The ape had a beginning, but he has no end (that is no tail); at the outset he was one of the archangels, but his end is not in view.Now the ape, not having a tail, is without species, and his rear without a tail is vile; like the devil, he does not have a good end.”

The monkey is regarded as being quite ugly, particularly in the region where he lacks a tail!

Physiologus was one of the most popular and widely read books of the Middle Ages.

Apes, it was thought, were the creation of the devil, the Ape of God who mimicked His actions just as the ape mimicked human behavior.

In the 12th century, apes became more common in Europe as pets and performing animals.

From being betrayed as a hideous, diabolical creature, the ape softened and morphed into an image of the devil’s victim, the sinner.  

Apes, it was imagined, were devolved from sinful humans.

Idolatry, defying supernatural instructions, imitating divine powers or excessive pride might make a monkey out of you.

What better way to portray ‘sensuality’ and ‘unreliability’, then, than drunken monkeys riding a goat?

Drunken monkeys, doing art

Tabakskollegium [Tobacco Club], Abraham Teniers, mid-17th century


In Renaissance art and in 17th century Dutch painting, the monkey still represented a range of evils, including lust, greed, malice and sloth.

The paintings poke fun at professions ranging from drunkard to painter by portraying the subjects as partying primates.

In many 17th century paintings, drunken monkeys can frequently be seen in human clothing, smoking tobacco, playing cards, rolling dice, and just plain getting wasted.

Perhaps the paintings are highlighting the effects of newly available intoxicating substances (tobacco, coffee, opium, spirits).

Though the drunken monkeys do seem to be having fun.

Die tabakrauchende Affenrunde [The Tobacco Smoking Monkeys], attributed to Ferdinand van Kessel, 17th century.

By  the 18th century, though, playfulness, wit and irony supplants the more sober moralizing.

An entire genre called Singerie describes art in which monkeys, dressed in human clothes, paint, sculpt or play musical instruments.

The term is derived from the French word for “Monkey Trick”.

David Teniers the Younger was such a master of Singerie that he actually had an entire studio of disciples who produced work in his style.


Le singe peintre [The Monkey Painter], follower of Ferdinand van Kessel, ca. 17th century


Singerie was not necessarily an art form to be taken seriously. It was “employed for the enjoyment of the court or the diversion of the royal children.”

In the early 1700s, it was fashionable for aristocrats to keep monkeys as pets. They dressed the monkeys in fancy outfits for comic effect and taught them human tricks, like pickpocketing, that they would display on leisurely walks around Versailles.

This even lead to monkey rooms in some aristocratic houses.  In the mid-1730s, Louis-Henri, the duke of Bourbon, commissioned Christophe Huet (1700-1759) to transform an elegant white Rococo salon.

By 1737, Huet had decorated nearly every surface with monkeys, fashionably dressed, busy in aristocratic pursuits: boar hunting, drinking chocolate, doing their hair, dancing and singing.  

This charmed the aristocrats while gently mocking them.

Monkey business, indeed.

H/T Resobcscura

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