Exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center
January 25-May 28, 2017
This remarkable collaborative exhibit takes a head-on approach to the notion that there were divisions between a Roman Age, a Middle Age, and then the dawning of the glorious Renaissance. Medieval people had no notion of a noticeable chronological progression; they saw their own contemporary culture as a continuation and evolution of classical Greek and Roman traditions in art, literature, and architecture.
The arts and culture of the Middle Ages were the inheritors of a rich classical tradition. For more than a millennium following the fall of Rome, antiquity was evoked and preserved through visual arts, ceremony, and manuscript culture. Remembering Antiquity: The Ancient World Through Medieval Eyes, on view now through May 28 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, explores the constant and varied engagement of medieval people with the classical past.
Co-curators Kristen Collins, curator of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum, and Kenneth Lapatin, curator of Antiquities at the Getty Villa, worked with former curatorial assistant Rheagan Martin to carefully select objects to illustrate this continuum. The Getty Villa contains the antiquities collection, while the Getty Museum houses a broader encyclopedia including medieval manuscripts and art.
“We had to choose objects which conversed with each other,” says Collins, when asked about working with two diverse collections. While it made the object selection more difficult, it helped the curators think about objects in different ways as they considered candidates for the exhibit. Lapatin pointed out a Romano-Egyptian cup, with the base displayed to show zodiac imagery. The interior of this piece was typically displayed but in this exhibit, the base corresponded with 13th century illustrations of the zodiac in a 12th century manuscript.
Bringing together objects from the Getty Museum’s antiquities collection with works from the manuscripts collection, the exhibition is divided into three sections. Section one, the Language of Forms, explores the fluidity of artistic forms across antiquity and the Middle Ages. The styles and motifs of classical art provided a rich vocabulary for medieval artists and patrons. The adoption and use of certain images and symbols “shows the flexibility of the visual languages,” says Collins. The second, Transmission of Knowledge, focuses on the classical knowledge base that was preserved by and transmitted through the work of medieval scribes and artisans. The last section, History and Invention, explores medieval understanding of, and approaches to, the past.
Throughout the three sections, there is a clear lineage between the classical motifs and the medieval. Lapatin emphasizes, “Antiquity was remembered, lived, and engaged with throughout the Middle Ages.” Selections demonstrate targeted usage of classic imagery in medieval contexts, such as the improved clarity of Carolingian minuscule introduced in the 8th century imitating the crisp inscriptions of Roman epitaphs. Not only was this an attempt to make communication more convenient, but a Carolingian adoption of Imperial power.
Another example includes Alexander (yes, the Great one) becoming an icon of medieval chivalry. While Alexander’s features were well-documented in coinage, medals, and statuary, this was disregarded in medieval illuminations including a celebration of his birth and his gentling of his mighty warhorse Bucephalas. Medieval depictions of Alexander show him as a contemporary gentleman, clothed in fine frocks. A far cry from his tradition nude depiction in the classical periods!
If you are in Los Angeles in the next few months, come by the Getty Museum for this exhibit. Even if you’re not in sunny SoCal, you can access images of the entire exhibit checklist through the Getty’s website: