Press Room Search

Current Press Releases
Archived Press Releases

News Home Archived Press Releases

Archival Information
For recent information, please see Current Press Releases.

Getty Museum Exhibition Examines Dramatic, Symbolic Uses of Color in Medieval Manuscripts

Illuminating Color
On View May 22 through August 26, 2001

May 9, 2001

Los Angeles--Color, one of the most essential and pleasurable components of human sight, was used in diverse and dramatic ways by manuscript illuminators throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Illuminating Color, an exhibition on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum May 22 through August 26, 2001, examines how artists over the centuries utilized color for symbolic purposes, as a way to organize images, and as an aid in creating three-dimensional illusions. It also investigates how color was determined by local traditions, the conventions of a certain type of book, or an artist's unique personality. The exhibition is accompanied by public programs including a concert by Musica Angelica, lectures, and artist demonstrations. (See complete list of "Related Programs" below.)

The 23 works on view were made in Europe and the Mediterranean basin during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Dating from the 12th to the 16th century, the works include prayer books, religious service books, and history books. Created in England, France, Italy, Germany, Byzantium, and Armenia, these manuscripts were selected to demonstrate the variety of uses for color in book illumination.

"Color is as essential to a painter as words are to a poet," says Thomas Kren, the Getty Museum's curator of manuscripts. "It is a fundamental part of how an artist communicates to a viewer, whether conveying a symbolic message, telling a story, or creating the illusion of depth in a landscape. Manuscript illumination is particularly important for our historical understanding of color because it has been immaculately preserved inside books, providing some of the most vibrant and sumptuous examples of painting that are known to us."

One part of the exhibition explores symbolic meanings of color to a medieval audience. Lavish canon tables by the Armenian artist T'oros Roslin demonstrate color's power to lead the medieval viewer from the material toward the spiritual world. The diversity of hues--gold, green, blue, orange, pink--and patterns recall Byzantine architectural treatises that described the power of multicolored marbles and gold of churches to lift the mind up to God.

Other sections of the exhibition are devoted to the ways manuscript illuminators used color to represent three-dimensional aspects of the body and landscape. In an initial L with The Baptism of Saint Augustine attributed to the Master of the Osservanza, the Italian artist models the robes of the two principal protagonists in contrasting hues: rose with green in one and green with yellow in the other. This was a lively alternative to modeling with value, or mixing white and black with a particular color to indicate the greatest and least areas of light.

Another section of the exhibition looks at the significance of gold, an important metallic pigment used in manuscript illumination. In a Byzantine Gospel book made in Constantinople, Saint Mark is shown against an abstract ground of gold leaf that shimmers and reflects light from different areas as the reader turns the page. This endows the scene with a mysterious, spiritual aura. In The Nativity by the French illuminator Jean Bourdichon, however, gold is used to represent not only divine presence, but also light itself. Rays of gold enter the stable from above and radiate from the Christ Child, illuminating the interior. In this miniature, gold has a spiritual meaning, but also acts as light does in the natural world.

Related Programs


"Color: Michelangelo and Leonardo in Sixteenth-century Italy"

Marcia Hall, professor and graduate chair, Tyler School of Art, Temple University
Thursday, May 31
7 p.m., Harold M. Williams Auditorium
Advance seating reservations required--call 310-440-7300

"In the Company of Spice Traders: Medieval Manuscript Illuminators and Their Painting Materials"
Nancy Turner, associate conservator, The J. Paul Getty Museum
Thursday, August 9
7 p.m., Harold M. Williams Auditorium
Advance seating reservations required--call 310-440-7300


"The Musician's Palette: Color in Music from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century"
Featuring Musica Angelica; Michael Eagan, Music Director
Saturday, June 2
3 p.m., Harold M. Williams Auditorium
Gordon Getty Concert Series
Advance ticket purchase required (includes guaranteed parking)--call 310-440-7300
Tickets $18 (seniors/students $15)

Artist-At-Work Demonstrations

Sylvana Barrett demonstrates the use of color in medieval manuscripts
Thursdays, May 24, June 7 and June 14
Sundays, June 10, June 17, and June 24 1:00-4:00 p.m.
East Pavilion Art Information Room
Weekday parking reservations required before 4 p.m.
No parking reservations required on the weekend.

# # #

About the Getty:

The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

Sign up for e-Getty at to receive free monthly highlights of events at the Getty Center and the Getty Villa via e-mail, or visit our event calendar for a complete calendar of public programs.

The J. Paul Getty Museum collects in seven distinct areas, including Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture, and decorative arts, and European and American photographs. The Museum's mission is to make the collection meaningful and attractive to a broad audience by presenting and interpreting the works of art through educational programs, special exhibitions, publications, conservation, and research.