Home > Uncategorized > Medieval-eyes: Maurice Sendak, RIP

Medieval-eyes: Maurice Sendak, RIP

Giovanni di Paolo, St John enters the Wilderness

Giovanni di Paolo, St John enters the Wilderness

I can’t think of a small-children’s book more beautifully written than Where the Wild Things Are. It is a miracle of perfectly placed and poised prose: an infinite pleasure to read, time and time again. I’m not the first to say that, of course, but less often commented on is its profound debt to the medieval era.

It’s true to an extent of the story, which in its storm-in-a-teacup journeying to a land of far-off beasts and adventue, and home in time for tea has just the combination of exotica, danger, quiet poetic oddness and ultimate sealed-in safety of much medieval literature. Indeed the Wild Things are ultimately medieval creatures: gargoyles, babewyns, woodwose, wild men, at once terrifying, safe, at-the-edge.

But it’s Maurice Sendak’s pictures which show a man who has spent many happy hours looking at medeival painting, especially perhaps the Italian/International Gothic imagery of c.1350-1450 — from the Wilton Diptych to Sassetta, the stylised, stage-set mountains and trees, mismatched scales, and dreamlike larger-than-life creatures are all there; so, too is the curiously static, near-posed approach to story-telling. Giovanni di Paolo — shown here, in an oft-repeated cycle about St John, the example of which I’ve shown here in appropriately enough in Chicago rather than Siena or London — gets as oddly-close as any artist to depicting the stuff of dreams, even if he doesn’t know it. Sendak’s Wild Things do the same.

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