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Collection Grows with the Acquisition of a Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and an Early English Manuscript Depicting the Life of Christ

February 20, 2008

LOS ANGELES—The J. Paul Getty Museum announced today the acquisition of The Vexed Man (after 1775), an alabaster bust by the 18th-century Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783), and the illuminated Vita Christi, one of the finest examples of English Romanesque illumination. 

With its unusual depiction of some of the lesser-known events from Christ’s life, the illustrated Vita Christi will be a central work in an upcoming exhibition Imagining Christ that will be on view at the Getty Center from May 6 through July 27, 2008. This is the first time this exceptionally beautiful manuscript has ever been displayed to the public, since it has previously resided in private collections.  Messerschmidt’s The Vexed Man will initially go on view in the terracotta gallery of the Museum’s West Pavilion at the Getty Center.  Eventually, it will be incorporated into a more permanent display pending other reinstallation plans.

“Both these objects will be revelations when they go on display,” explains Michael Brand, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum.  “Acquiring them for the Getty will not only bring them to public view, it will also help inform the rest of our collection and allow us to contribute to scholarly research through our own efforts and through those of others who will now have the opportunity to study them.”
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s The Vexed Man

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, an 18th-century German artist, is considered one of the most significant sculptors of the Viennese Enlightenment. He was trained in a late–Baroque style but his sculptural manner eventually evolved toward Neoclassicism. In 1769, he became a member of the Akademie in Vienna, but shortly thereafter he showed early signs of mental instability, which led to a loss of public and royal commissions and eventually his dismissal from the Akademie.  Messerschmidt eventually moved to Pressburg (present-day Bratislava) where he continued to accept formal portrait commissions and to work on the remarkable series of Character Heads, to which The Vexed Man belongs.

The Character Heads are an astonishing group of 69 heads that Messerschmidt produced during the last 13 years of his life.  Carved in alabaster, or cast in lead or a tin alloy, these heads illustrate Messerschmidt’s obsession with the power of expression and with pathognomy – the study of passions and emotions, specifically the expression of emotions indicated by the voice, gestures, and facial expression.  The radical early Neoclassicism and astonishing expressiveness of the works make them among the Enlightenment’s most important artistic achievements. The Vexed Man’s rarity within the series of Character Heads, such as its material—few were carved in alabaster—and the fact that it has remained in a private collection since the 19th century, makes this new acquisition exceptionally important.

Recent scholarly research suggests that Messerschmidt had no intention of publicizing these works.  Rather, they were a means for him to explore expression, and a form of ritual catharsis to rid him of the spirits which apparently invaded his psyche. However, after Messerschmidt’s death, 49 of the heads were exhibited in a 1793 exhibition, having been purchased from the artist’s brother, Johann Adam Messerschmidt, by a certain Herr Stranz, the cook of the Citizen’s Hospital in Vienna.  The titles were not Messerschmidt’s, but were added for the exhibition, when they were also described in an anonymous catalogue accompanying the exhibition. The title of Vexed Man (no. 21 in the series) appears to have been the anonymous author’s interpretation of the sitter’s expression.

The Vexed Man is an addition of major importance to the Getty’s collection of 18th-century Central European sculpture, of which few examples exist.  It joins other recent additions of German sculpture from the same period including St Michael and the Fall of the Rebel Angels (c. 1700–52) and the Ivory Goblet (c. 1680) by Balthasar Griessmann. In addition, this work makes a direct link with the painting Self-Portrait, Yawning (before 1783) by Joseph Ducreux as they make a compelling visual connection and underscore the interest of European Enlightenment artists in expression and psychological states.

Illuminated Vita Christi
With the acquisition of the Vita Christi, the Museum has supplemented its superlative holdings of illuminated manuscripts with the finest example of English Romanesque illumination remaining in private hands.  This rare manuscript contains over 100 illuminations from the 12th and 15th centuries.  The 51 miniatures dating from the 12th century likely served as an elaborate pictorial preface to a psalter, an important genre of English illumination that was not previously represented in the manuscripts collection. Romanesque Psalters (which contained the Old Testament Book of Psalms and other devotional material) were particularly noted for their striking visual qualities and for their detailed narrative cycles.  Such cycles often elaborated on the life of Christ, allowing medieval Christians to link the Old and New Testaments. 

The manuscript contains two distinct but unusually extensive cycles of miniatures. The first consists of 51 Romanesque full-page miniatures.  These images were painted in northern England in the late 12th century and depict the life of Christ in rich detail.  Though the cycle concentrated on the life of Christ, it actually begins with images of the Virgin Mary’s parents Joachim and Anna, and ends with the death of the Virgin.  The exceptionally powerful iconography includes a number of rarely depicted scenes, such as that of the 12-year-old Christ being led to Jerusalem and the Suicide of Herod. This manuscript’s pictorial cycle is unmatched among English Romanesque manuscripts in terms of its sheer expansiveness and iconographic complexity.

A second pictorial cycle was added in the 15th century in East Anglia, when the book was reconfigured and 57 miniatures were integrated into the earlier cycle. It spans the history of the world according to the Bible, from the Fall of the Rebel Angels and the Creation to a series of images dedicated to the Apocalypse.  Although largely pictorial in nature, this addition also incorporates a number of prayers such as those dedicated to the Holy Face and the side wound of Christ (the latter accompanies an image of the side wound, said to be reproduced at actual size).
This new manuscript complements another great example of English illumination at the Getty, the recently acquired Northumberland Bestiary (1250-1260), as well as the Museum’s holdings of European Romanesque art. The acquisition enhances the Getty’s already impressive collection and enables the Museum to represent the pictorial cycles for the three great genres of high medieval English illumination: the Apocalypse, the bestiary, and the psalter.

Note to editors:  Images available on request.

Related Event

Building the Getty Collection: A Decade of Acquisitions
In commemoration of the Getty Center’s 10th Anniversary and the installation of three exhibitions exploring the topic of acquisitions over the past ten years, three senior curators at the Getty Museum will discuss the process of making new acquisitions in a panel discussion moderated by Michael Brand, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum.  On the panel will be:  Lee Hendrix, senior curator, Department of Drawings; Thomas Kren, senior curator, Department of Manuscripts; and Weston Naef, senior curator, Department of Photographs.
Getty Center: Harold M. Williams Auditorium
Wednesday, March 12, 7:00 p.m.

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Rebecca Taylor
Getty Communications

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