Artful Words: Calligraphy in Illuminated Manuscripts begins this month at the Getty

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is hosting a new exhibition starting this month that showcases the medieval word. 

The written word was a major art form in the medieval world. Calligraphers filled the pages of manuscripts with scrolling vines and delicate pen flourishes, and illuminators depicted captivating narratives with large letterforms. These decorative embellishments reveal the monetary, cultural, and spiritual value placed on handmade books at the time. Offering an exploration of decorated letters, Artful Words: Calligraphy in Illuminated Manuscripts, provides insight to the artistic trends that shaped calligraphic practice throughout the medieval world for nearly one thousand years.

Two Men before a King and A Man Speaking to a Family, about 1290 – 1310 – from The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XIV 6, fol. 97

Three types of decorated letters were employed in the handwritten book arts of the Middle Ages: ornamented letters, formed by abstract foliate motifs; inhabited letters, in which strokes of the letter are made up of animal, human, or hybrid forms; and historiated initials, in which the letter includes figures or other content related to the text.

The alphabetic adornments in this exhibition appear in manuscripts that range from a Bible and a Qur’an to books of prayer, law, and history. The calligraphers who made them combined script and ornament to embellish pages, while illuminators developed original and complex strategies for fitting miniature stories into individual letters. Several of the manuscripts feature signatures by the scribes, calligraphers, or artists.

Page from an Ethiopian manuscript, about 1504 – 1505. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 102, fol. 104

“We consume words in a variety of ways—in handwritten, printed, and digital media— decoding messages that are communicated not just by the combination of phrases but also by their design and styling,” said Bryan C. Keene, associate curator of manuscripts at the Getty. “Among the highlights in the exhibition is a grouping of manuscripts penned by the famous scribe David Aubert for Duchess Margaret of York, as well as a Qur’an paired with an Italian ceramic vase with imitation Arabic script.”

Leaf from the Gradual of the Carthusian Monastery Santo Spirito near Lucca, about 1392 – 1402. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Elizabeth J. Ferrell, Ms. 115 (1)

Artful Words: Calligraphy in Illuminated Manuscripts will be on view December 18, 2018, through April 7, 2019 at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The exhibition will include gallery talks and lectures. You can learn more at at

Top Image: Decorated Initial C, 1420 – 1430 – from The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 17, fol. 52v