This Summer at The Getty: The Book of Marvels

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles will be hosting a new exhibition this summer focusing on medieval manuscripts. The Book of Marvels: Wonder and Fear in the Middle Ages, will run from June 11 to August 25, 2024.

On view at the Getty Center, the exhibition of manuscripts depict and describe different places, peoples, and customs around the world from the perspective of medieval Europeans. It feature two closely related illustrated copies of The Book of the Marvels of the World, debuting one recently acquired by the Getty Museum in 2022, the second lent by the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.


Written in medieval France as an encyclopedia of global wonders, the text weaves together tales of peoples both near and far, based on ancient sources, medieval folklore, and the supposed travels of eyewitnesses. The global locations highlighted in the manuscript were paired with scenes of fantastical stories and creatures that medieval Europeans would have found captivating and even bizarre. The places seen in the illuminations blurred the line between fact and fiction, with the locales situated far from Europe often viewed as dangerously different.

India (detail), about 1460 – 65. From Book of the Marvels of the World, Illuminated by the Master of the Geneva Boccaccio – Getty Museum Ms. 124 (2022.15), fol. 5

“This exhibition highlights Getty’s recently acquired The Book of the Marvels of the World, which provides many graphic insights into medieval Europe’s varied and often insular perspectives on the wider world,” says Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the Getty Museum. “This important exhibition will invite audiences to think about how fear of difference colored perceptions of diverse places and cultures in Medieval times, as it can still today.”


The twin manuscripts containing the Book of Marvels will highlight the images of Scythia and India, two of the numerous locations mentioned in the text. The Scythians, known as fearsome nomadic warriors, inhabited a vast area stretching from China to north of the Black Sea from around 900 to 200 BCE. In the Book of the Marvels, they are portrayed simply as brutal attackers from a land far removed in time and geography from medieval Europe, when in fact, Scythians possessed a sophisticated culture with impressive achievements in technology and the arts.

During the European Middle Ages, about 500 to 1500 CE, India was a place of highly developed and interlocking cultures, languages, and religions, yet was mischaracterized as a land of savage peoples and strange customs in the pages of medieval manuscripts. The depictions of Scythia and India in the exhibition offer examples of how manuscripts like the Book of the Marvels reduced the identities of unfamiliar peoples and instilled xenophobia in the minds of readers.

Scythia, about 1460. From Book of the Marvels of the World, Illuminated by the Master of the Geneva Boccaccio – The Morgan Library & Museum, New York – Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913) in 1911 – Ms. M.461, fol. 70. Photo: Janny Chiu L.2024.1

“The compelling but mostly fictitious descriptions in The Book of the Marvels were intended to entice European readers with wonder, while simultaneously repelling them and reinforcing their ideas of superiority,” says Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty Museum. “The exhibition shows how imagery can actively contribute to a process of exclusion in which individuals and groups are seen primarily in terms of their difference from one’s own community.”

Additional objects, drawn from the Getty’s collection, will expand on the themes seen in the Book of Marvels manuscripts. Also on view will be an encyclopedic text from medieval Germany containing a map of the world as it was known in 1493.

Map of the World, 1493, from the Nuremberg Chronicle. Getty Research Institute 84-B7073, fols. 12v–13

If you cannot make it to Los Angeles, then perhaps attend The Book of Marvels: Imagining the Medieval World, which is taking place at The Morgan Library and Museum from January 24 to May 25, 2025.

The Book of Marvels: Wonder and Fear in the Middle Ages is curated by Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty Museum, and Kelin Michael, former graduate curatorial intern at the Getty Museum.

Cinomologus; Anthropophagus; Himantopode; Artabatite, 1277 or after – From Wonders of the World – Getty Museum Ms. Ludwig XV 4 (83.MR.174), fol. 117

Accompanying the exhibition is a publication exploring the tradition of encyclopedias and travel writing, while showing how The Book of the Marvels of the World reveals the medieval European conceptualization of the world. On July 12, Getty will host a discussion about travel narratives, Art Break: An Armchair Traveler’s Guide to the Medieval World, with Morrison and Markus Cruse, associate professor of French at Arizona State University.


To learn more about the exhibition, please visit The Getty website

Top Image: A Siren and a Centaur, about 1270 – Getty Museum Ms. Ludwig XV 3 (83.MR.173), fol. 78