Remembering Antiquity: The Ancient World Through Medieval Eyes

Exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center

January 25-May 28, 2017

Head of Augustus, Roman, marble, 25-1 b.c., The Getty Museum. Easily identifiable by Roman scholars, this is a typical depiction of Augustus widely reproduced in many media in the 1st century b.c. Ignoring his signature look, this emperor’s character was commonly used in medieval illuminations yet in the garb of a medieval king.

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.

August: Augustus, Stammheim Missal, Hildesheim, around 1170’s a.d. The Getty Museum. Here, the characteristics of the classical portrayal of Augustus are completely replaced by a more generic image of a medieval ruler, grasping an orb to signal his power over the world.

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.

Canon table pages, Gospel Book, Lorsch, 826-838 a.d. The Getty Museum. The clear and carefully spaced letters imitate Roman inscriptions, while the multi-colored columns evoke the rich marble of Antique basilicas and other architectural features.


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.

Statuette of Alexander the Great, Greek, marble, 200-100 b.c., and Coin with Alexander the Great with the Horn of Zeus Ammon, Greek, silver, minted in Lysimachia, 297-281 b.c. These represent the classical depictions of Alexander, nobly and proudly nude.

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!

The Birth of Alexander, by the Master of the Jardin de Vertueuse consolation and assistant, in the Book of the Deeds of Alexander the Great, by Quintus Curtius Rufus and trans. Vasco da Lucena, Bruges, around 1470-1475 a.d. The Getty Museum. A crowd of gaily dressed ladies cheer the birth of the future king, while sporting the latest fashions of the 15th century Bruges’ court. In the background, a young Alexander (also stylishly dressed) rides the wild and untamable Bucephalas.

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:


The exhibit has a lovely aesthetic with striking graphics and a nice mix of manuscripts and objects throughout the gallery. Photo by D. Trynoski 2017.


Statuette of a Griffin and Arimasp, Greek, bronze, 125-175 a.d., The Getty Museum. Greek and Roman tales of griffins included their battles against the Arimasp peoples which occasionally resulted in a griffin attack like the one shown here. Depictions of their violent nature such as this one may have influenced medieval illustrators when thinking about how to embody sin.


Initial S: Griffin and Rider, Psalter, Wurzburg, around 1240-1250 a.d. The Getty Museum. Griffins and other composite beasts from Greek and Roman traditions were translated into the Christian narrative to illustrate man’s battle with sin.