Danielle Trynoski takes a look at two new exhibitions at the Getty Center – Eat, Drink, and Be Merry and The Edible Monument – with curators Christine Sciacca and Marcia Reed
This review discusses two new exhibits at the Getty: Eat, Drink and Be Merry: Food in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a medieval manuscript exhibit curated by Dr. Christine Sciacca, and The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals at the Getty Research Institute, curated by Marcia Reed. I was fortunate to attend the opening reception for these two related exhibits and had the pleasure of a curator tour at each show.
The evening started off in the Getty Center’s North Pavilion with a greeting from Assistant Curator of Manuscripts Dr. Christine Sciacca, who is the new mother of a 3-week old daughter Ophelia and joked that she was delighted to have the opportunity to see the exhibit for the first time along with all of us. The gallery is painted with rich burgundy and cool blue slate which complemented the colors of the illuminated manuscripts placed around the room. The exhibit focuses on three main sections: Nature’s Yearly Bounty, Preparation and Consumption, and Food for the Soul. These sections highlight the influence of food in daily life and annual cycles, the functional symbolism of food in manuscript depictions, and the role of food in Christian theology, respectively.
Dr. Sciacca’s discussion of these themes was colorfully punctuated with highlights from the manuscripts on display, such as a chubby boy helping with the vendange, or grape harvest, and sampling some of the sweet fruit. She spoke of how manuscripts do not just illustrate medieval lifestyles and trappings, but “offer a window into attitudes toward food.” She also thanked Elizabeth Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the Getty, for allowing her to curate the department’s first show focusing on food in the Middle Ages.
In Nature’s Yearly Bounty, viewers begin with a scene of sowing seeds with an “elegant peasant” (Dr. Sciacca’s label) produced by the Workshop of the Rohan Master. We then move to see the wheat harvest, the baking of bread, and feasting in subsequent manuscripts. In “December: Baking Bread,” dough is kneaded in a long shallow trough while loaves are slipped into a bread oven. Dr. Sciacca shared that it was very typical throughout the Middle Ages to share communal ovens, due to the size and fire danger. The bread oven depicted in this manuscript may be a communal oven since the context is a peasant lifestyle, not a noble household. Rather than selecting a grand feasting scene to represent the nobility and all their table dressings, Dr. Sciacca chose a very small illumination in the Ruskin Hours of Janus feasting, with three mouths to accommodate bread, wine, and meat. Despite being barely larger than a postage stamp, this image is a unique piece of medieval art representing an important part of food preparation and use in the Middle Ages.
The oldest manuscript exhibited was Sciacca’s favorite, a Benedictional from c.1030 created in Regensburg, included in the Preparation and Consumption section. The scene of the Last Supper as usual has bread on the table, which Dr. Sciacca believes to be the oldest known depiction of a pretzel. In the illustration Judas is the only figure eating, implicating him in the sin of gluttony while the black bird of the Devil escapes from his mouth. The figures have the large, wide eyes typical of Late Antique and Romanesque art, but use the typical medieval component of making Christ larger than the other human figures. In the context of the exhibition, the manuscript is a beautifully decorated item but the main function of the imagery was using the consumption of food to create a visual version of the doctrine. Other illuminations in this section depicted hunters in the field roasting a boar in Gaston Phébus’ Livre de la Chasse, a 15th century Book of Hours showing Joseph cooking porridge with Mary and Jesus nearby, and the “Feast of Dives” from the Spinola Hours by the Master of James IV of Scotland, 1510-1520. These diverse settings show medieval tables and food items, with settings, dressings, and plating reflecting different class and status.
Moving into the Food for the Soul section, the manuscripts demonstrate the spiritual connection of food. While simple foods such as bread, fish, water, and wine are commonly included due to their widespread consumption in the Middle Ages, they also represented the simplicity and fasting of the desired Christian lifestyle. A delicately drawn folio shows a miracle from the Life of St. Hedwig in which the reserved and sober Hedwig, falling ill, was encouraged by her husband to drink some healthful wine. If only all husbands were so helpful. When Mr. Hedwig tasted the liquid in her cup, her typical drink of choice, water, had miraculously turned to a fine vintage. Not only was this miracle story responsible for the naming of the recognizable medieval Hedwig beakers but also referenced Jesus’ miracle at the Marriage of Cana (displayed in a nearby case). St. Hedwig’s Day, occurring during the exhibit on October 16, is also known for a special type of pastry, the Soles of St. Hedwig, which you can create yourself using this recipe. This lesser-known saint and her miracles fit the foodie theme of the exhibit, but it is the skillful drawing of the facial features that really make this particular piece stand out in the gallery. Other illustrations include “Adam and Eve Eating the Forbidden Fruit” (15th century) by the Master of the Oxford Hours, and an early 15th century image of the Israelites gathering manna as it fell from “psychedelic clouds above their heads,” according to Dr. Sciacca.
After touring Dr. Sciacca’s exhibit, the group moved to the Getty Research Institute to view The Edible Monument: the Art of Food for Festivals with curator Marcia Reed. This exhibition explores the public consumption of food in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe and includes a variety of media such as paintings, prints, books, etchings, silver, and sugar. Yes, sugar sculptures are used to create a stunning centerpiece (pun intended) alongside table plans and images of court feasts.
Many pieces in these galleries are highly detailed etchings and prints, but a hand-painted scroll from the Netherlands in the 16th century, folios from 18th century Books of Trades, and a variety of historic cookbooks really stand out as special pieces. Many art works emphasize food in a public context such as festivals, feasts, coronations, saints’ days, and other special events. Dr. Reed pointed out that not only was food used by the upper classes to support status and class divisions, but also by middle and serving classes. The position of Carver, in the late medieval and Renaissance periods, was considered to be a high-status serving position. Since the Carver would frequently interact with guests, he must be well-spoken, well-mannered, and somewhat stylish. As the merchant classes diversified in these periods, so did positions in other sectors. Other food-related positions reflect this as well; bakers and pastry shops were some of the earliest commercial food enterprises. Remember Dr. Sciacca’s comment about medieval communal bread ovens? Professional bakers and pâtissiers were a natural development in an economy with a growing middle class. This review will not go on at length about this exhibition (much of it covered material from 1600 or later) but most of the material related to medieval topics or evolved out of medieval habits and I encourage you to explore the online catalog, detailed images, and descriptive labels.
Another related element connecting these two exhibitions is the mobile tour “The Art of Food.” Geared to help younger visitors interact with both displays, this activity features characters drawn from the artwork and questions about the art. Each exhibition has its own individual tour and for each completed tour, visitors can win a prize! Who doesn’t love prizes?! After completing the tour, the participant’s phone or device will display “Winner!” Who doesn’t love to hear that you’re a winner? We all know everyone gets a little thrill! For museums with the resources to develop such activities, it’s a worthwhile investment. It produces a portable, engaging activity for multiple ages, can usually be easily translated into multiple languages, isn’t hosted by a museum-owned device, and can be utilized by an unlimited audience. Conventional audio guides can break or be stolen, and interactive elements installed in exhibit galleries can typically be used by a limited number of people at any given time. I applaud the Getty for taking the time and effort to produce an exhibit component of this nature, especially for temporary exhibits.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry: Food in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance will be open through January 3, 2016 and The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals will be on display at the Getty Research Institute through March 13, 2016. For programs, related activities, high-quality photos of the exhibitions, visitor information, and other details, explore the Getty’s website.
Danielle Trynoski is the Los Angeles-based correspondent for Medievalists.net – Click here to read more of her posts