Long ago, illustrations of fanciful and fearsome sea monsters graced the margins of Medieval and Renaissance maps. To modern eyes, the beasts look mythological, but cartographers of yesteryear believed they were real, Smithsonian’s Hannah Waters writes. These finely drawn creatures were inspired by the era’s scientific texts, which provided detailed—if not entirely accurate—descriptions of the natural wonders encountered by sailors on the high seas.
At the end of the 17th century, sea monsters began to disappear from maps as Europeans became more scientifically savvy about the ocean. However, today’s artists continue to draw inspiration from the fabled animals—including Bailey Henderson, a Toronto-based sculptor whose works re-imagine the creatures in 3D form.
Henderson's ongoing “Monstrorum Marines" series brings to life “a variety of bizarre and enchanting creatures [that] come in a plethora of shapes and forms,” she writes in a project description she shared with mental_floss. “Some resemble real animals like lobsters, dolphins, and seals, while the vast majority are fanciful imagined beasts. Often, they are a mix of multiple animals, such as a fish with the head of a pig. Sometimes they are also combined with ornamental designs and decorative elements."
Henderson's painted, cold-cast bronze works remain true to the playful spirit of the old maps. However, with their attention to texture and detail, they also envision what the monsters might have looked like if they had been real. "In a time where much less was known about the natural world, and its creatures, these sea monsters represent a place somewhere between fantasy and reality," Henderson says. "These monsters may have been used purely as decorative elements on maps, but they may have also described the dangers lurking in unknown ocean depths."
Check out a few of Henderson’s sea monsters below, or visit her website to view more of her whimsical creations.
"Porcus Marinus (meaning Sea Pig) is a monster commonly found in various forms on medieval maps, etchings, and in bestiaries. Curiously, it is usually depicted with three eyes on each side. It was described as early as ancient Rome."
"Pinniped is a walrus sea monster that is depicted in many maps and etchings. Its face resembles that of a seal, but its body is covered by an ornamented carapace."
"Ziphius et Orca depicts two sea monsters. Ziphius, the larger of the two, is a monster found on many medieval maps. It was believed that the creature's knife-like dorsal fin could slice though ships (the name Ziphius means sword). Orca is a whale sea monster; it's often depicted with a snouted or beaked face that spouts water from a mouth or blowhole."
All images and captions courtesy of Bailey Henderson.