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March 07, 2012

The Devil's in the Details—Getty's New Manuscript Exhibition Gives Death and the Afterlife a Warm Welcome

Heaven, Hell, and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages

At the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center
May 29–August 12, 2012


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Alexandria Sivak
Getty Communications
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LOS ANGELES—The Middle Ages produced many of the most fantastical and arresting images of death and the afterlife. Medieval depictions of cruel demons, valiant angels, and gruesome deaths continue to inform our visual understanding of the horrors of hell and the rewards of heaven.  Drawing primarily from the Getty Museum’s permanent collection and featuring several new acquisitions, Heaven, Hell, and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages, on display May 29–August 12, 2012, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, features a collection of remarkable imagery from illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, printed books, and paintings.

“Death was everywhere in medieval culture, and the unshakable belief in an afterlife motivated much of the art we see from this period,” said Martin Schwarz, curator of the exhibition. “The centrality of death played out in the popular and religious imagination in many ways, from poetry to literature to the uplifting and terrifying images seen in the exhibition.”

The exhibition features three sections that address the universal and inescapable fact of death: “The Art of Death”, “The Descent into Hell”, and “Damnation and Salvation”.

The Art of Death

Morbid imagery found in late medieval prayer books sheds light on the intense preoccupation with matters of death. The intimate scale of these books encouraged devout Christians to prepare themselves inwardly and contemplate death in solitude. Solemn depictions of deathbed scenes, funeral rites, and the uncertain fate of departed souls focused attention on the viewer’s own mortality and the transience of material wealth. In The Three Living and the Three Dead (about 1480–85), noble riders encounter three corpses risen from the dead that block their path. The scene is based on a medieval poem in which the three dead are described as the nobleman’s forefathers who criticize their descendents for being too materialistic and pleasure-loving. The image reminds the viewer that death is hidden among beautiful objects—the three skulls nestled among golden leaves and flowers in the illustration further emphasize this lesson.   


In Denise Poncher Before Death (about 1500), the young woman who owned the manuscript is seen facing a terrifying vision of Death, a skeleton covered in rotting flesh and holding numerous sickles. This image offers a reminder that despite the woman’s youth and beauty, she is nonetheless mortal. The piece is also a recent acquisition by the Getty, and its ghoulish delights will be publicly exhibited for the first time since it was made.

The Descent into Hell

Hell. Where is it? What does it look like? What horrors await sinners there? In widely read stories such as The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, medieval audiences followed the main characters into the depths of the underworld. These vivid accounts were frequently illustrated with terrifying images that exceeded even the most gruesome textual descriptions. A prime example is The Beast Acheron (1475) from The Visions of the Knight Tondal, where a knight’s journey through the afterlife brings him to the infernal monster Acheron, who busily devours souls as they disappear into the hellish red of a beastly abyss.

Dante’s references to the location, shape, and structure of hell drove Renaissance scholars to translate his text into detailed maps. One such map, printed in 1515 and on loan from UCLA’s Special Collections, features a detailed pit that is 3,400 miles wide and deep with nine concentric circles representing different levels of sin. The dialogue between the artistic imagination and a burgeoning scientific interest in the afterlife produced an idea of hell as a real, physical place infused with wild fantasies.

“Aside from vague descriptions and references to hell in early Christian writings, there were very few visual interpretations of it until the Middle Ages,” adds Schwarz. “Artists greatly enriched the imagination of hell with their inventiveness, and these first depictions have shaped the way we visualize it, from serpent-like demons to the pitchfork wielding, pointy-tailed Satan.”

Damnation and Salvation

While images of hell instilled fear and fascination in the Middle Ages, there was also imagery that suggested control over one’s fate, if one lived a good life. In the face of God’s final ruling over each soul, Christ’s death on the cross to redeem the sins of mankind offered hope. Artists turned Christian beliefs into arresting images of damnation and salvation intended to unsettle and motivate their audiences. In The Feast of Dives and The Soul of Lazarus Carried to Abraham (about 1510–20), Dives is tortured by demons for rejecting Lazarus’s request for food, while Lazarus is received by Abraham in heaven. These depictions of heaven and hell, often juxtaposed in a single image, increased the impact of the eternal delights and horrors waiting in the next life.

Heaven, Hell and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages is curated by Martin Schwarz, former intern in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Department of Manuscripts.


1) Lazarus's Soul Carried to Abraham (DETAIL), about 1510‐1520. Master of James IV of Scotland (Flemish, before 1465‐about 1541). Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig IX 18, fol. 22.

2) Denise Poncher before Death, about 1500. Master of the Chronique scandaleuse (French, about 1493–1510). Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 109, fol. 156.

3) The Beast Acheron (DETAIL), 1475. Simon Marmion (Flemish, active 1450–1489). Tempera colors, gold leaf, gold paint, and ink on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 30, fol. 17.

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