“In the Beginning Was the Word”: Medieval Gospel Illumination exhibition at The Getty

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The J. Paul Getty Museum has unveiled its latest exhibition earlier this week, which gives visitors the opportunity to see how the four gospels were seen in the Middle Ages. Drawing primarily from the Getty Museum’s permanent collection, “In the Beginning Was the Word”: Medieval Gospel Illumination, began on August 30th and goes until November 27, 2011. It examines the decoration associated with the Gospels, including portraits of the four Evangelists, and explores the varied approaches to illustrating the life of Christ.

“The Gospels were considered of paramount importance and were richly decorated throughout the Middle Ages,” says Kristen Collins, associate curator of manuscripts. “With examples ranging from England to Ethiopia, Byzantium, and Armenia, this exhibition traces the tradition of Gospel illumination in Christian art and worship.”

Spreading the teachings of the Gospels was an important feature of early Christianity and, as a result, the Gospels were quickly translated from Greek into the many spoken languages of the world. This exhibition includes manuscripts produced between the ninth century through the seventeenth century and in Western Europe, Byzantium, Armenia, and Ethiopia. In spite of this vast chronological and geographical breadth, the main aspects of illumination remained relatively uniform. Gospels typically contained a portrait of each of the four evangelists as well as decorated canon tables. In each manuscript, however, subtle variations are clear, revealing distinct regional inflections and hints of the visual cultures that produced them. For example, on display in the exhibition is a canon table illuminated in Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, which combines architectural motifs inherited from Greco-Roman antiquity with a rich vegetal design inspired by Islamic art. Ethiopian Gospel books often opened with images of the Virgin and Child accompanied by rows of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles, reflecting the importance of these figures within Ethiopian Christian worship.

In the first two centuries, public reading of religious texts formed the core of both Jewish and Christian worship. This tradition persisted in the Medieval Christian church. Books made for this purpose were venerated as sacred, along with the other furnishings of a church’s altar. Since few people in the Middle Ages were literate, listening was the way most people received the information in the Gospels. Excerpts from the Gospels were read aloud during daily services and for particular feast days. Elaborately decorated and embellished with gold, the manuscripts containing these important texts had a ceremonial as well as a functional role in the services. Later in the Middle Ages, with the rise of literacy, private prayer books came to include readings from the Gospels.

In addition to portraits of their authors, Gospel books were often illustrated with scenes from the life of Christ. Such pictures were meant to make the books’ text more easily understandable and to emphasize its importance. Because the New Testament story was widely familiar, people were normally able to follow a cycle of pictures even without reading the accompanying text. For this reason, Gospel picture cycles came to appear also in illustrated books other than the Gospels proper, such as books for the Mass and personal prayer books. On loan from the Young Research Library at UCLA is the Armenian manuscript The Gladzor Gospels, which displays a suite of stunning and unusual images illustrating the genealogy of Christ. Although Matthew and Luke list the names of the ancestors of Christ in their Gospels, this theme was rarely seen in manuscript illumination outside of the Armenian tradition.

“In the Beginning Was the Word”: Medieval Gospel Illumination is curated by Kristen Collins, associate curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Please visit the Getty website for more information.

Source: The Getty Trust

Sharan Newman