Belly Up: or, A Journey Through The History of Art In the Shape of a Frog

Fig1. Margarat Honda. Frog, 2019. Multimedia. Carnegie Museum of Art


Belly Up: or, A Journey Through The History of Art In the Shape of a Frog

Author: Christopher Nygren

Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Director, Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program

In September 2019, the Carnegie Museum of Art installed a new work in the Forum Gallery: Frog is a five-foot long sculpture of a frog that Margaret Honda created in collaboration with Hollywood propmakers (fig.1). 

The scale of the work is jarring and the positioning of the frog, which lays on the ground belly up, is disarming. In the animal kingdom, the belly-up position is rarely a good sign. If you linger in the Forum Gallery for any length of time, you’ll inevitably hear visitors whispering to one another, “Is this frog dead?”

Many other aspects of this frog are also subject to inquiry. If one looks at the sculpture long enough and compares it to photos of the European common frog (Rana temporaria), which is the species of frog closest to this sculpted invention, they will realize that there are a number of important divergences between Honda’s sculpture and real-world frog (the number of digits on the forelegs, for instance) (fig.2).

These are not “errors”; rather, they are hold-overs from Honda’s font of inspiration for this curious and playful sculpture, which is a painting by the Renaissance painter Bramantino (1465-1530) held in the Ambrosiana collection in Milan (fig.3). 

Like most pre-modern works of art, the museum has given the painting a descriptive title: The Madonna Enthroned with Saint Ambrose and Saint Michael. However, this overlooks the most surprising element of the painting, which is the gigantic frog that lays on back in the lower right-hand corner of the picture space (fig.4).

As a specialist of Italian Renaissance art, I know much more about paintings like Bramantino’s than I do about contemporary sculpture. Even so, the Carnegie Museum of Art invited me to participate in a public conversation about Honda’s new work. This event was an experimental format that was dubbed “A Conversational Dissection,” and it brought me together in conversation with Jennifer Sheridan, Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and Hannah Turpin, Curatorial Assistant for Modern and Contemporary Art and Photography at the CMOA. Each of us presented for about 10 minutes, and our mandate was simply to bring our expertise to bear on Honda’s sculpture in a way that might enrich our understanding of the sculpture. Dr. Sheridan gave a very informative and rollickingly entertaining introduction to the biology of frogs. She introduced the audience to, among other things, the idea of “snout-vent length” that biologist use to measure frogs. Biologists have aggregated millions of data points to produce charts that show the link between a frog’s weight and its snout-vent length. Dr. Sheridan was able to extrapolate from these charts that, if it were to exist in the real world, Honda’s frog would with more than 900 pounds. 

My presentation focused on the depiction of frogs in the history of art (mostly Western). I had never given any thought to frogs in art prior to the invitation from the CMOA, but as soon as I began looking for frogs, I started to find them everywhere. Of course, the “Plague of Frogs” is one of the curses that Moses brought down on Egypt in an effort to free the Jewish people from their captivity under Pharaoh (Exodus 8:4-5), and therefore I was able to find many depictions of frogs in illuminated manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, such as this Old English Hexateuch from the 11th century or the Morgan Picture Bible (fig.5 and fig.6).

I’m especially fond of the illustration of this scene in a Hebrew manuscript known as the Golden Haggadah, which is a fascinating book about which I’d encourage everyone to read more (fig.7).

My presentation, though, focused mostly on the oddity of having a frog as an attribute of St. Michael. St. Michael is mentioned both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. In the Book of Revelation, it is said that he will defeat Satan. In the Renaissance, this was usually figured by having St. Michael defeat some sort of person/serpent hybrid, as can be seen in this painting by Carlo Crivelli (fig.8).

Looking at Crivelli’s painting, one can certainly see some similarities with Bramantino’s frog. However, Crivelli’s demon is clearly humanoid. Exactly how Bramantino decided to swap out this satanic demon with a frog is unknown. But about 20 years before Bramantino painted his altarpiece, Hieronymus Bosch had begun to infuse frogs with demonic connotations, as one can see in his altarpiece of the Temptations of St. Anthony, in which the hermit saint is taken on a terrifying flight on the belly of a frog (fig.9 and fig.10).

It is unlikely that Bramantino knew Bosch’s painting and the story of the Plague of the Frogs from Exodus already suggests that frogs might have already been thought of as a demonic sign. Thus, it seems like Bramatino was simply using this logical chain of inference as his point of departure: frogs are associated with the demonic and therefore it makes sense that St. Michael might be pictured with a frog. What he produced was an utterly unexpected image, and the history of that image now included Honda’s sculpture, which is an equally surprising and jarring image. Understanding how Margaret Honda found inspiration for her sculpture in the oddity of a Renaissance painting offers perspective on how creativity and inspiration operate: Honda’s frog is as Renaissance as it is modern, and in that it offers a beautiful commentary on a topic that is dear to our department, which is how works of art manage to occupy multiple and diverse temporalities.

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