February 09, 2011

Getty Displays Storytelling Manuscripts

Stories to Watch: Narrative in Medieval Manuscripts

At the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center
February 22—May 15, 2011

LOS ANGELES—The illuminators of medieval manuscripts found creative ways to tell stories through pictures. A sequence of illustrations was often linked on a page, or several parts of a tale were incorporated in a single image. On view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Center, February 22—May 15, 2011, Stories to Watch: Narrative in Medieval Manuscripts will display approximately 20 manuscripts and leaves with narrative illuminations from different periods and regions, presenting a fascinating variety of pictorial storytelling.

"Although medieval illustrators used various techniques to help convey a story, the viewer still needed to interpret certain clues and complete the stories using his or her imagination," say Kristen Collins, associate curator of Manuscripts. "In this way, fixed images came alive for the viewer."

Stories to Watch: Narrative in Medieval Manuscripts looks at the ingenious methods used in medieval manuscripts to visually convey crucial factors of narrative, including the drama of decisive moments, the development of events through time, and verbal interaction.

Decisive Moments
Typically, medieval artists illustrated stories with single images inserted at intervals throughout the text. However, these individual narrative scenes are more than simple snapshots. The moments chosen for depiction were strategically selected, and visual hints were often included to help the viewer imagine what happened before and after. Sometimes, the artists combined several stages of an event into one image, thus constructing an artificial moment instead of a sequence of events.

Unfolding Action
In medieval manuscripts, the depiction of a sequence of events can occur either within a single image or as a series of separately framed scenes. Although a series can give more narrative clues, the viewer still has to jump from scene to scene and fill in the gaps between them. Often, the artist helps identify the protagonists involved in successive events, for instance, by using the same costume for each character throughout. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to determine the direction in which to read a pictorial narrative because the layouts vary on the page.

Words and Gestures
Stories move forward not only by physical action but also through dialogue and other forms of verbal action. In the current age of cartoons and comics, one is accustomed to finding speech bubbles inserted into pictorial narratives. Medieval artists integrated script into illustrations as well, but they also found other ways to depict what is being said. Techniques included using significant gestures, or showing the subsequent effects of spoken words.

The exhibition will also draw a connection between the visual stories in medieval manuscripts and today’s pictorial narratives. Included in the exhibition is a 1936 comic strip from the Getty Research Institute’s Special Collections, which shows the main character repeated in each panel, similar to pictures found in manuscripts. The last scene of the comic refers to the sculpture Laocoön Group, which represents the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons, who were killed by snakes. In order to understand the comic, the viewer has to bring contextual knowledge about the sculpture to the image. Over time, the knowledge audiences have brought to pictorial narratives has changed, along with the preferred artistic techniques. But some methods, such as the repetition of the main characters, have endured.

Stories to Watch: Narrative in Medieval Manuscripts is co-curated by Kristen Collins, associate curator of manuscripts, and Henrike Manuwald, former manuscripts intern.

Note to editors: Images available upon request.

Image at top:"The Lamb Defeating the Ten Kings," about 1220—1235. Unknown. Spanish. Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 77, recto.

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Desiree Zenowich
Getty Communications
(310) 440-7304

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