July 17, 2013

Stories of Suffering and Salvation: Getty Explores Saints in the Middle Ages

Miracles and Martyrs: Saints in the Middle Ages

September 3, 2013–March 2, 2014
At the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center


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The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (detail), about 1466–1470. Master of Jacques of Luxembourg (French, active about 1460–1470). Tempera colors, gold leaf, silver leaf, and ink on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig IX 11, fol. 126.

LOS ANGELES—Venerated for their willingness to suffer torture and death, their ability to perform miracles, and their privileged place in heaven, saints were vital to medieval Christianity. These holy men and women attempted to follow Christ’s example of piety and endurance in the face of persecution, and served as models of behavior and goodness.

Featuring objects from the Getty Museum’s renowned manuscripts collection,
Miracles and Martyrs: Saints in the Middle Ages, on view September 3, 2013–March 2, 2014 at the Getty Center, includes works that present the remarkable and astonishing stories associated with saints. Inspired by images of both great beauty and incredible horror, faithful Christians were eager to celebrate those who were thought to provide comfort in times of need and to reveal the presence of the divine in the earthly realm.

"Devotion to the saints was an integral aspect of medieval Christianity," explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. "This exhibition highlights a variety of
types of books from the Museum’s rich manuscripts collection, including private prayer books, devotional tracts, and biographies that relate to the worship of saints, illustrating through these beautiful images the widespread appeal and influence the cult of saints had in art and society during the period."

Saint Jerome Extracting a Thorn from a Lion’s Paw, second quarter of 15th century. Master of the Murano Gradual (Italian, active about 1430–1460). Tempera and gold leaf on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 106, recto.

One of the most popular stories about a saint is illustrated in Saint Jerome Extracting a Thorn from a Lion’s Paw (early 15th century) by the Master of the Murano Gradual. The compassionate Saint Jerome (about 345–420) uses golden tweezers to carefully remove a thorn from the paw of a lion that wandered into his monastery seeking care for its wound. A fearful monk in the background, cowering and holding a jar of ointment and a bandage, serves as a contrast to the monumental figure of Saint Jerome, whose voluminous robe occupies much of the image. As he tends to the lion’s injury, the remarkably calm animal looks out boldly at the viewer. Understood to be sent by God, the lion became Saint Jerome’s faithful companion and an honorary member of the monastic community.

Miraculous Interventions

It was believed that during their lives, saints experienced spectacular visions, performed miracles on behalf of the faithful, and were blessed by divine intervention in their lives. The extraordinary feats they performed and the heavenly revelations they witnessed helped to confirm the power of sainthood. Death was not a barrier to these holy men and women. In fact, after passing, saints were thought to intercede and protect devotees from harm and offer aid in difficult situations. Artists depicted these miracles in stunning images that made the mystical legends surrounding saints come to life for medieval readers.

One example of this kind of imagery can be found in a 1469 illumination of Saint Catherine by Taddeo Crivelli. With her right hand, Saint Catherine keeps her place in a book, while her left gently touches a spiked wheel. The scene highlights two of the best known aspects of this fourth-century saint’s life story: the book before her symbolizes the great intelligence and learning that allowed her to confound pagan philosophers, and the wheel references God’s miraculous destruction of the tortuous instrument with which she was threatened before her martyrdom.

Divine Sacrifice

Martyrs were greatly admired for braving intense persecution and their willingness to die for their faith. They refused to abandon their beliefs despite being threatened with such horrific violence as beheading or being slain with multiple arrows. In some instances, artists produced arresting scenes of martyrs at the moment of suffering. In others, the saints hold the instruments of their torture, serene in the knowledge that salvation awaits. These weapons, or sometimes other symbols associated with their legends, became the saints’ standard visual attributes, allowing viewers to easily identify figures. Most martyrs died in the first few centuries after Christ’s life, yet written accounts of their torments inspired striking visual responses well into the Middle Ages and beyond.

Saint Peter Martyr (detail), about 1469. Taddeo Crivelli (Italian, active about 1451–1479). Tempera colors, gold paint, gold leaf, and ink on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig IX 13, fol. 192v.

In a second illustration by Taddeo Crivelli, Saint Peter Martyr seems remarkably unperturbed by the great axe embedded in his head and the knife sticking out of his chest. The thirteenth-century saint was assassinated by those threatened by his remarkable ability to convert heretics.

“According to legend, Peter continued to pray even after the attack left him missing part of his skull,” explains Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Despite this horrific injury, he is still seen in concentrated prayer, further reinforcing the steadfastness of his piety.”


Peter Martyr was a beloved Italian saint, famous for his ability to intercede with Christ on behalf of those who prayed for his favor. He and other popular local saints were often featured in private prayer books such as the one in the exhibition, where the images would inspire readers in their prayers for aid, comfort, and redemption.

Piety and Practice

Fervent devotion, extreme humility, and selfless charity were characteristics of saints admired and imitated by medieval Christians. Particular saints were often chosen as special guardians by individuals, groups, and even specific professions. The faithful prayed to these “patron” saints because they were thought to represent certain traits shared with or desired by the devotee.

In Saint Luke Painting an Image of the Virgin (about 1440–1450) by the wo
rkshop of the Bedford Master, Saint Luke leans over a desk, adding the finishing touches to a portrait of the Virgin Mary dressed in blue set against a pure gold background. According to legend, the first-century saint painted Mary from life more than once, creating a series of miraculous icons. Due to the fame of these portraits, in the Middle Ages most artist guilds were called the Guild of Saint Luke, and he still serves as the patron saint of artists today. In private prayer books, such as the one on view in the exhibition, the saint is often pictured diligently set at his task so that patrons could make a connection between his efforts to faithfully capture the features of the Virgin and the beautiful craftsmanship of the inspiring artwork before them.

Miracles and Martyrs: Saints in the Middle Ages, is on view September 3, 2013–March 2, 2014 and is co-curated by Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Melanie Sympson, former intern in the Department of Manuscripts. Because these materials are light sensitive, this exhibition is presented at low light levels and in two different installations (September 3–December 2, 2013, and December 4, 2013–March 2, 2014). The exhibition runs concurrently with Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister, on view September 20, 2013–February 2, 2014, an exhibition showcasing twelfth-century stained glass from Canterbury Cathedral and an extraordinary manuscript made in the same period at St. Albans Abbey, and featuring a section focused on the holy individuals associated with each of these two English institutions: Saint Thomas Becket of Canterbury and Christina of Markyate at St. Albans.

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The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that includes the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Foundation. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations:  the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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