Touching the Past: The Hand and the Medieval Book

Exhibit tour at the Getty Center with curator Kristen Collins

Written and photographed by Danielle Trynoski


Touching the Past: The Hand and the Medieval Book invites visitors to get in touch. Well, not literally since we’re discussing medieval manuscripts, but the exhibition wants viewers to consider the tactile side of books and manuscripts. Manufacture, Manipulation, and Manus are the sub-sections which all draw from the same Latin root as manuscript, and encourage the consideration of the creation, use, and connection to books in the medieval era.

Getty exhibit - manicules collage - Photo by Danielle Trynoski

Most of the pieces are drawn from the Ludwig collection, which originally contained paintings and manuscripts from the private collection of Peter and Irene Ludwig. J. Paul Getty, the founder of the Getty, did not collect manuscripts but when an entire collection of over 100 pieces came available from the Ludwigs, the Getty Center jumped at the chance to add it to their collection. Since the acquisition of the original collection in 1983, the Getty has doubled its size through donations and purchases. These new acquisitions frequently inspire exhibits such as this one. An unfinished leaf by the Rohan Master leaf became available through a dealer and was purchased for the Ludwig Collection. The partially finished artwork includes line drawings and paint applications and provides a wealth of information about the creative process behind manuscripts.


This process inspired graduate intern Megan McNamee to curate an exhibit which focuses on the tactile aspect of medieval manuscripts and books. Now, these items are kept stored away and displayed behind glass in climate-controlled conditions. In the past and the present, books are meaningful objects that have a physical and emotional connection and the pieces selected for the exhibit strive to demonstrate that. This focus also results in a delightful exhibit that highlights the rare and often overlooked physical elements of manuscripts including curtains, monkey fists, and covered-up mistakes.

A case displaying a stretched goat skin is beginning of the Manufacture section. Also featured is the new acquisition, “The Rejection” by the Rohan Master. This is a rare unfinished leaf dated to c. 1410. The sketched line drawings are framed by whimsical architectural elements and animal details similar to those found in contemporary tapestries. This piece has some of its color applied, with the first layers laid out in limited areas. Bold colors needed several layers to reach a finished hue and lighter colors were used to create effects and mottling.


Getty exhibit rohan master and book of fables  - Photo by Danielle Trynoski

Around the corner from “The Rejection” is a book of fables with clear attempts to edit the illustrations. The illustrations are unevenly spaced on the pages, and previous erroneous drawings are unsuccessfully covered by an opaque white paint. The label elucidates the fact that most visual artists did not know how to read, and would have to add illustrations in and around the existing text. This particular piece demonstrates a miscommunication of what illustration aligned with certain text, with illuminating results. This collection of fables is likely from Trier and dates from c. 1450-1475.

Moving through the exhibit, visitors come into the Manipulation section containing some very interesting object selections. On loan from the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California is a rare belt case with an intact folding liturgical calendar from the mid-fifteenth century. This set was created for the owner to wear and use on a daily basis, making its survival rare and the clear etching on the case remarkable. Displayed in conjunction with this calendar and case is a bound manuscript open to an illustration of Mary and Elizabeth, “The Visitation” by the Boucicaut Master, c. 1415. Not only are both women shown with prayer books being carried with them, but Elizabeth has a chemise binding on her book. Chemise binding was a method of attaching a sack-shaped cloth to the binding of a book, allowing the excess fabric to be knotted to the user’s belt. Surviving chemise bindings are extremely rare, again owing to the high volume of daily handling and manipulation. The calendar case displayed alongside this reminder of chemise bindings reminds us of the easily transportable nature of books. Now we carry e-books on our smartphone or electronic device, but there is a long tradition of people carrying their favorite reads with them.

Getty exhibit - chemise binding and belt calendar -  - Photo by Danielle Trynoski

Another unique manuscript in the Manipulation section is an astronomical text. “Astronomical and Medical Miscellany” stands out not only for its scientific subject matter, but also for its movable pieces. These parchment dials, known as a volvelle, can be rotated to provide astronomical information for certain dates. This manuscript was assembled in England likely after 1386. Another survival, a silk curtain, is displayed nearby. Small pieces of silk were commonly sewn into manuscripts to protect the color and/or metallic leaf on illuminated capitals. According to Getty curator Kristen Collins, the holes from these curtains remain on many manuscript pages but are now lost considering the prevalence of rebinding manuscripts. Shown here is the intact silk curtain on the Marquette Bible meant to cover the “Initial E” dating from c. 1270.

Other manuscripts showed additional examples of touch and interaction. Monkey fists, the “common” name for the small leather knots applied to frequently referenced pages, were a delightful feature intact on several of the displayed bibles. Evidence of devotional touching seen in worn illustrations, later editing and changes, and marginalia all highlight the daily use of these manuscripts in past lives. The illustrations that invited touch or suffered from faded colors were among curator Kristen Collins’ favorites, because of this tangible link to past individuals.  A particular type of marginal drawing, manicules, were added to draw the reader to particular sections of the text. What makes these sketches so amusing, apart from the abstract elongated pointing fingers, are the small details like sleeves or jewelry (see above for example).


Getty exhibit monkey fists and volvelle  - Photo by Danielle Trynoski

Considering the fact that this exhibit does not allow visitors to touch, manipulate, rotate, feel, turn, flip, or physically interact with objects, the displays provide an amazing degree of dimension. Rather than being a flat art show, visitors experience unique objects and can clearly identify the special, tactile nature of the pieces on display. The manuscript gallery at the Getty Center changes its exhibit every 3-6 months to protect the manuscripts from light exposure, so be sure to visit before this exhibit closes on September 27, 2015! Plan your visit here and get more information about the exhibit (including the illustrated checklist and exhibit text) on this site.

A special thank-you to associate curator of manuscripts Kristen Collins for her time and answers to my questions during a very pleasant exhibit tour!

Photo by Danielle Trynoski

Danielle Trynoski is the Los Angeles-based correspondent for – Click here to read more of her posts