More than the pretty wrapping paper and ribbon we use today, gift exchange in the Middle Ages was the social interaction that defined and manifested relationships between family and friends, acquaintances and strangers, and God and the church. Just in time for the holidays, Give and Ye Shall Receive: Gift Giving in the Middle Ages, is now on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It examines the culture of gift giving in the Middle Ages as depicted in illuminated manuscripts.
Bringing together 20 works, both from the Museum’s extraordinary manuscripts collection and several major loans from other museums and private collections, the exhibition explores models of giving that appear in devotional texts, philanthropic and strategic giving in medieval society, and the commissioning of luxury manuscripts as gifts. The medieval book itself was a particularly powerful present, an object filled with words and striking images meant to edify and flatter the recipient, as well as to solidify political and social relationships.
“Modern-day customs of gift giving have their origin in practices that flourished from the early Middle Ages through the Renaissance,” explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “As well as being valuable and prestigious gifts themselves, illuminated manuscripts also depict famous instances of gift giving throughout the arc of history from antiquity and biblical times to the contemporary medieval figures who commissioned and owned these lavish productions.”
“Just as today, the giving of these beautiful, valuable and coveted items in medieval times was an expected part of forging alliances, the tokens of honor for secular and religious leaders, and the ultimate way to celebrate a family milestone. Half a millennium later, they have lost none of their allure and preciousness.”
Models for Giving
Giving freely to those who are less fortunate is one of the central tenets of medieval and modern-day Christianity. Medieval texts and images presented many models of generosity for Christians to follow. Manuscript images depicting monetary donations as well as food and clothing given to the poor and the infirm provided a visual guide for proper Christian behavior. In Initial H: Saint Martin Dividing His Cloak (about 1260-70), the artist shows Saint Martin, a soldier in the Roman army, diving his red, ermine-lined cloak with his sword and giving half of it to a beggar freezing in the winter cold. This story directly parallels Christ’s statement to his apostles, “I was naked and you clothed me” (Matthew 25:36). Later accounts of this famous story from the saint’s life state that the cloak belonged to the army and therefore was not Martin’s to give in full, which explains his seemingly less-than-generous gift of only half a cloak.
Gift giving permeated all aspects of medieval life, including the economy, politics, spirituality, and even the act of bookmaking itself. In part, our understanding of this culture is informed by the images of donation and patronage found in medieval manuscripts. Scenes of well-off individuals giving to charity, political leaders currying favor through a well-considered gift, and books presented to royal or ecclesiastical patrons all demonstrate the often-complex dynamic between the gift giver and the recipient in the medieval world. In Alchandreus Presents His Work to a King (about 1405) by the Virgil Master, the philosopher Alchandreus kneels in his green robe and presents a copy of his text on astronomy to a king, perhaps meant to be Alexander the Great. The luxuriously clothed courtiers who fill the reception hall are an accurate representation of the wealthy patrons who commissioned manuscripts in fifteenth-century France, where this book was made.
“This image demonstrates the integral relationship between the patron who sponsors the book’s creation, the author who writes the text, and the presentation of the final product—namely the actual volume that the reader holds in his or her hands as Alchandreus does,” says Christine Sciacca, curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum and curator of the exhibition.
Patrons and Their Books
While in the present day the role of the artist is regarded as paramount in the inception and creation of a work of art, in the Middle Ages the patron of an illuminated book or other work of art was often by far the most instrumental factor in shaping its appearance and content. Subsequently, owners sometimes had their books personalized with their portraits, their coats of arms, their mottos, or symbols standing in for them that endured for generations as the book was passed down within a family. Included in this section is a heavily illustrated copy of Rudolf von Ems’s World Chronicle in which the book’s multiple owners added portraits, coats of arms, and other details in order to mark the manuscript with their personal identities.
The Book as Gift
Expensive to purchase, infinitely customizable, and highly portable, illuminated manuscripts were ideally suited to become gifts in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. These precious treasures were frequently offered by patrons to churches and monasteries, presented from one secular ruler to another, and given between husband and wife or from parent to child. A charming example of the book as gift is a 15th-century English psalter shown in the exhibition. While the original owner is not known, on a page at the beginning of the manuscript is a note written in the twentieth century from book collector Philip Hofer to his wife, Frances: “Bunnie, darling. Your engagement ‘ring’ remember? P.H.” This idea of the book as an engagement gift is analogous to the medieval practice of commissioning manuscripts on the occasion of a marriage.
Give and Ye Shall Receive: Gift Giving in the Middle Ages will be on view until March 15, 2015 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center. Please visit http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/gift_giving/ for more details
— J. Paul Getty Museum (@GettyMuseum) December 16, 2014