The J. Paul Getty Museum is reopening on May 25th. With it comes a new exhibition: Power, Justice, and Tyranny in the Middle Ages, that will showcase how medieval Europe struggled with many of the same issues of power and disenfranchisement that contemporary society faces today.
“The use and abuse of power was a subject of intense discussion in the Middle Ages, inspiring works of art that expose the divide between political and religious ideals on the one hand and the reality of lived experience on the other,” says Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “The illuminated manuscripts in this exhibition, drawn exclusively from the Museum’s own collection, show how artists explored the intersections between power, justice, and tyranny, and illustrate the tension between noble aspirations and humanity’s baser instincts, both of which are represented. Visitors may well see resonances with recent events—another example, if it were needed, of the power of art to express and influence major social and ideological issues throughout history.”
Politics and religion were intimately intertwined in the Middle Ages, as can be seen in one image in the exhibition showing the crowning of the King of the Franks. The enthroned king is flanked on one side by representatives of the Church and on the other by members of the nobility. The king was the highest power in the land, but his right to rule was conferred by the Church.
In another image indicating the close relationship between Church and state, Saint Leonard breaks open the bars of a prison to free a caged child. When honored by King Clovis, the saint had asked only for the right to free prisoners who had been unjustly detained – a privilege otherwise only held by the king.
Even long-revered historical figures don’t escape the attention of manuscript illuminators, as seen in an illustration of Alexander the Great, whose life served as a model of both good and bad leadership for medieval rulers. The artist reveals his own biases by writing that “in order to avoid a bad example,” he changed the gender of Alexander’s influential male lover to a female seductress. The assumed sway Alexander’s paramour had over political decisions was intended to illustrate Alexander’s immoral behavior, according to medieval mores.
An image of the mythological heroine Ariadne leaning over her writing desk, penning a letter to her faithless lover, Theseus, provides insight into the way women wielded power in the medieval world. Ariadne had helped Theseus escape almost certain death, only to be abandoned. This poignant image illustrates a translation of the Roman author Ovid’s text Heroides (Heroines), a series of imagined letters from legendary women of antiquity to the men who wronged them. Owned by Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), queen of France, the manuscript offers a tantalizing view of the literary tastes of an influential medieval woman who was interested in injustices against women. The manuscript was acquired by the Getty this year, and this exhibition marks its first display to the public in its 500-year history.
The exhibition includes numerous examples of seemingly benevolent rulers who actually had tyrannical aims, the struggle between secular and religious ruling parties, and the tortures that await those who are reckless and cruel in their quest for power.
“Four curators in the Manuscripts Department came together to conceive this exhibition, originally planned to coincide with the U.S. national elections in the fall of 2020,” says Elizabeth Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts. “The pandemic delayed the exhibition, but its themes seem even more relevant now, in a world shaken by events of the past year.”
Power, Justice, and Tyranny in the Middle Ages will be on view from May 25th to August 15th. You can also view a presentation of the exhibition online on Google Arts and Culture.
To learn more information, please view The Getty website.
Top Image: Pope Urban VI and the Anti-Pope Clement VII, about 1480 – 1483, from Master of the Getty Froissart – The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XIII 7, fol. 87