Getty's 'Imagining the past in France' illuminates Middle Ages


Getty’s  ‘Imagining the past in France’ illuminates Middle Ages

The J. Paul Getty Museum's new exhibition is a rich mix of manuscripts, including religious literature and works of legends and myths, that reveals a dazzling story of medieval France.

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Roman d'Alexandre, 1290s. French. Tempera colors and gold on parchment. (Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbe / J. Paul Getty Museum)


The concept of history in the Middle Ages was not what it is today, as visitors to the J. Paul Getty Museum's new exhibition of manuscripts will see. In an eye-popping image from "Romance of Alexander," a book made in the 1290s, an unknown artist illustrated a yarn about Alexander the Great making an underwater expedition. Enthroned in a glass diving bell, below a whale that gobbles up much of the pictorial space, the regal explorer calmly observes a colony of nude people, earthly beasts and fruit trees living at the bottom of the sea.

"The artist really had fun with this," says Getty curator Elizabeth Morrison, who organized the exhibition with Anne D. Hedeman, an art history professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana- Champaign. "It's a fanciful representation of history, but in medieval times there were accounts of Alexander going to India and Asia with elephants. It was all mixed in and taken as part of history." In another flight of fancy, an encyclopedia of the Middle Ages depicts Asia as the home of an earthly paradise with jeweled gold mountains, protected by griffins, dragons and blue elephants.

Forget about musty old history books crammed with tiresome facts. The ingenious artists who illuminated the manuscripts in "Imagining the Past in France, 1250-1500," opening Tuesday at the J. Paul Getty Museum, were in the business of bringing history to life. As illustrators of a rich mix of historical documents, Christian literature, legends and myths, they told stories in dazzling pictures for the delectation and edification of the ruling class in medieval France.

"The manuscripts had a specific function at court," Morrison says. "Like movies today about Alexander the Great, King Arthur, the Trojan War or the Crusades, they were meant to teach, entertain and overwhelm the senses as they celebrated exciting narratives."

Like devotional and liturgical illuminations produced in monasteries, the works are highly detailed compositions in vivid tempera colors and gold on parchment. But they were produced by an urban book trade that responded to a demand for vernacular manuscripts. Often larger than traditional religious books, the secular manuscripts are inventive visual interpretations of stories written in French or translated from Latin for an increasingly literate audience.

Eight years in the making, the exhibition is the museum's latest effort to bring extraordinary manuscripts to Los Angeles from repositories around the world. "Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe," in 2003, was followed by "A Masterpiece Reconstructed: The Hours of Louis XII" in 2005, "Holy Space, Hallowed Ground: Icons From Sinai" in 2006 and "The Belles Heures of the Duke of Berry" in 2008.

For "Imagining the Past," on view only at the Getty, the curators have selected nearly 80 illuminated manuscripts and related objects of ivory, tapestry and metal from 29 museums and libraries across the United States and Europe. The show is an opportunity for the public to see works usually available only to scholars and rarely, if ever, allowed to travel.

"This is the crème de la crème," Morrison says. "We have been able to gather in one place the greatest French history manuscripts created in the Middle Ages."

Some of the narratives may be the stuff of fairy tales, but taking liberties with history to inspire action, validate power or establish moral principles is an enduring practice. In the heat of political campaigns or social unrest, public figures often model themselves after heroes of yore. This fall in Paris, a fascinating little show tucked away in the basement of a medieval tower named for Jean the Fearless, a Burgundian duke, explored the resilience of medieval themes in comic strips created as teaching tools.

The manuscripts at the Getty interpret history for a medieval audience. People are depicted in the sort of attire worn by those who commissioned the books, not historical characters. And the messages often serve a serious purpose, such as reinforcing the divine right of human governance. A 35-foot-long scroll, about half of which will be displayed in a purpose-built case, starts with the Christian notion of creation and ends with a French king. Here, Morrison says, is "a sense of linear, pre-ordained history that goes directly from God's mouth to the French monarchy."

A prime piece from the Getty Museum's collection, "Concerning the Fates of Illustrious Men and Women" by Giovanni Boccaccio, contains a rare — possibly unique — image of Adam and Eve in their final years painted by an artist known as the Boucicaut Master.

"Boccaccio writes the text as an eye-witness account, as if the wrinkled old people leaning on their canes were talking to him," Morrison says. "They are telling their horror story of having to work instead of being beautiful in the Garden of Eden." A striking image from a different version of the Boccaccio text, painted by artist Jean Fouquet, depicts the trial of the Duke of Alencon, who was convicted of treason for conspiring with the English during the Hundred Years' War.

Both curators cite the Getty's Boccaccio as the inspiration for the exhibition. "This book arrived on the very day that I started work here, in 1996," Morrison says. "I thought I had found the right place for sure." Six years later, in 2002, Hedeman spent three months at the Getty as a visiting scholar to further her study of Boccaccio.

Hedeman describes her academic sojourn as "one of those marvelous moments" when ideas clicked into action. As she and Morrison discussed their common interest in how history was perceived in the Middle Ages, they began to envision an exhibition.

"Romance has always been viewed as fiction and chronicles as history, whatever that means," Hedeman says. "Our overarching idea was to cut across modern definitions of those genres to try to get at medieval ones. We were also interested in the role of visual materials in the Middles Ages."

They focused on a seminal period in the history of France, when Paris became a thriving cultural and intellectual center that spawned a book trade with a clear division of labor. Libraries, or book sellers, got commissions from wealthy patrons and coordinated the work of professional scribes and artists to complete the projects on time and on budget.

In 2004, Morrison and Hedeman began traveling together to examine manuscripts, make selections and persuade potential lenders to let go of valuable holdings. As usual in exhibitions of bound manuscripts, they faced the problem of choosing the two facing pages of each book that could be shown. Digital images of additional pages will be available on kiosks in the galleries.

The exhibition's introductory section will lead to segments on ancient, Christian and medieval history. A gallery devoted to the "Nine Worthies" will present figures cited in the early 14th century as the greatest heroes of those periods: Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar from antiquity; Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus from the early Christian era; King Arthur, Emperor Charlemagne and Godefroy de Bouillon, a leader of the First Crusade, from the Middle Ages. The final section will demonstrate how historical narratives in French manuscripts inspired works made of various materials in other countries.

The profusely illustrated catalog, written by the curators and six additional scholars, puts the artworks in chronological order and explores the evolution, collecting and reading of manuscripts. One of Hedeman's topics, "Presenting the Past: Visual Translation in Thirteenth-to-Fifteenth-Century France," explores the process of bringing history to life in books.

"When you are painting and illustrating things for people, it's always about the present," she says. "That's true in our era too. People have visual frames of reference that they understand. In the period we were looking at, when the visual culture was so rich, many of the books belonged to people for whom money was no object. They were able to have the full impact of what artists, authors and scribes could offer. The books end up being amazing coordinated communication systems that use things like dress to encourage the readers or viewers to look at the pictures as part of reading."