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Fit for a King: Courtly Manuscripts, 1380-1450
at the Getty Center June 29-August 29, 2004

May 21, 2004

Los Angeles—Around the year 1400, a new aesthetic emerged at the courts of Paris, Prague, London, and Milan, finding expression across Europe in books commissioned by the social elite. The new exhibition Fit for a King: Courtly Manuscripts, 1380–1450, at the Getty Center, June 29–August 29, 2004, looks at the figures, fashions, and forms of the courtly art that dominated art and taste for almost a century.

 The exhibition includes 22 manuscripts and leaves drawn from the Getty's collection.  Made for the rich and powerful, many of these luxury books contain work from the top illuminators of the period, including the Boucicaut Master, the Master of Saint Veronica, and the Spitz Master. The show also features two panel paintings from the same period, including the new Getty acquisition The Adoration of the Magi with Saint Anthony Abbot (about 1390–1410), a rare and masterful work in the International Gothic style.

 The popularity and portability of manuscripts facilitated the spread of ideas among European courts. Artists also traveled between cities, actively studying the techniques of fellow illuminators. These interactions resulted in a number of visual similarities among manuscripts produced during the period. This common style, also known as International Gothic, was characterized by the presence of tall, graceful figures in fashionable costumes; naturalistic landscapes; and bright, intricately patterned backgrounds. At the same time, certain aspects of illumination varied from region to region. The works on view highlight the stylistic differences that reflected the geographic range of artistic centers, while revealing their shared international style.

The exhibition features religious as well as secular books, including histories and romances. Royal patrons commissioned the books for prayer and learning, as well as to display their status and wealth.  Illuminators would often insert portraits of their benefactors into the manuscripts, which drew upon aspects of court life to illustrate stories. Leisure activities such as dancing were sometimes portrayed in scenes featuring elegant subjects drawn with elongated proportions and sweeping gestures, and dressed in aristocratic, elaborate clothing and exotic headgear. 

Another element of the international style, an emphasis on dense patterns, can be seen in garments and also other areas, particularly the backgrounds. In the panel painting The Coronation of the Virgin (around 1420), Mary and Christ wear robes covered with elaborate patterns reminiscent of contemporary Florentine textiles. They are placed against a similarly draped throne, which works to nearly obscure the two figures by focusing the viewer's attention on the decorated surface of the painting. In another example, Scenes from Creation (about 1390–1400), the delicately drawn figures are surrounded by brilliantly colored frames painted with gold and costly pigments. The motif of the frames—a checkerboard of gold, red, and blue squares called a diaper pattern—was used extensively in manuscript illumination of this period.

There was also an interest in naturalistic depictions of landscape, including scenes populated with animals. In Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child (about 1415–25), the background is filled with details drawn from everyday life—ships, fishermen, and sheep grazing on a hill—while above is a blue sky with twinkling stars arranged in a regular pattern. The borders are crowded with other scenes from the saint's life, surrounded by a multicolored array of foliage and flowers accented with rich gold leaf. This attention to naturalistic detail, combined with an interest in pattern and decorative motifs, is characteristic of courtly manuscripts of this period.

Subtle regional differences give the International Gothic style local flavor.  French manuscripts of the time display a characteristic red, blue, and gold ivy-leaf pattern in their borders. English illuminators adapted visual features favored in continental Europe to create a distinctive style, including a lush, curling acanthus plant decoration that is particular to English illumination. In Milan, artists expressed the courtly taste of the Italian aristocracy in fine textural detailing of costumes and the depiction of leisure activities such as hunting.

Thea Page
Getty Communications Dept.

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