May 24, 2010

Getty Museum Explores the Diverse Role of the Old Testament in Book Illumination

Old Testament Imagery in Medieval Christian Manuscripts

At the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Center, June 1—August 8, 2010

Samson Fighting a Lion (detail)
Franco-Flemish, about 1270
Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment

LOS ANGELES—The exploits of heroes and heroines from the Old Testament were among the most popular subjects illustrated in manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Familiar stories, such as those of Adam and Eve or David and Goliath, appeared not only in Bibles but also in prayer books, historical chronicles, and encyclopedias. On view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Center, June 1—August 8, 2010, Old Testament Imagery in Medieval Christian Manuscripts highlights the multi-faceted role of the Old Testament in book illumination, exploring how artists refashioned the biblical past to speak to the interests of the medieval present.

"The Old Testament served as one of the richest sources for narrative art in the Middle Ages," says Thomas Kren, acting associate director of collections and co-curator of the exhibition. "This exhibition reveals how medieval readers turned to the Old Testament not only for inspiration and moral guidance, but also as a source of entertaining tales and historical information."

The term "Old Testament" refers to the first half of the Christian Bible, which is derived from the Hebrew scriptures. Medieval Christians believed that the prophecies of Hebrew sacred texts were fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ, and that the narratives of Christ’s life found in the four Gospels, along with his disciples’ writings, comprised a New Testament that completed God’s will for mankind.

Old Testament Imagery in Medieval Christian Manuscripts includes images of wise and courageous figures of the Old Testament who provided models of behavior for medieval people. For instance, bishops, priests, and monks looked to the examples of prophets and spiritual guides such as Moses; a brave king or knight might have styled himself after David or Samson; and a queen who judiciously safeguarded her people in a time of peril might have earned comparison to Esther. To enhance the Old Testament’s relevance and impact for these audiences, artists portrayed biblical heroes and heroines in contemporary costume and illustrated their most exemplary and memorable deeds.

Old Testament illustrations displayed in this exhibition were also used as a way to entertain its readers. Medieval authors began paraphrasing and translating Old Testament stories in order to make them accessible to a wide audience. They embellished these stories with anecdotes based in ancient history and legend rather than the Bible. Exciting Old Testament tales were also incorporated into historical chronicles, which were frequently rhymed, for the entertainment of aristocratic audiences. Manuscript illuminators responded to these changes by illustrating biblical episodes in contemporary settings and portraying the Old Testament as an expansive pictorial epic of adventure and high drama.

Finally, the exhibition looks closely at the role of Old Testament pictorial themes in liturgical manuscripts, especially books for prayer. Unlike illustrations found in other books, these images were intended to direct readers to the salvation provided by Christ. This exhibition includes images of Old and New Testament events which were often depicted in parallel so that worshippers could contemplate how the Old foreshadowed the New.

This exhibition provides a rich diversity of Old Testament scenes from the Museum’s collection and valuable insight into medieval thought and culture. The recent acquisition, Saint Jerome Extracting a Thorn from a Lion’s Paw by Master of the Murano Gradual will be displayed for the first time in this exhibition. This cutting from a choir book illustrates Saint Jerome’s compassion and courage as he removes a thorn from a lion’s paw.

Old Testament Imagery in Medieval Christian Manuscripts is co-curated by Richard Leson, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, and Thomas Kren, acting associate director of collections at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Note to editors: Images available upon request.


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Desiree Zenowich
Getty Communications
(310) 440-7304

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