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Exhibition Looks at How Medieval Artists Transformed Pagan Motifs into Religious Imagery

Transforming Tradition: Ancient Motifs in Medieval Manuscripts
At the Getty, September 23-November 30, 2003

August 18, 2003

Los Angeles—The brilliant, complex, and colorful decorations of medieval illuminated manuscripts were rarely the result of pure artistic inspiration. Medieval artists often looked to the rich past for ideas. The new exhibition Transforming Tradition: Ancient Motifs in Medieval Manuscripts, at the Getty from September 23 through November 30, 2003, points out that some of the subjects and details of these dazzling painted books originated, directly or indirectly, in the arts of classical Greece and Rome.
Ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan objects from the sixth century B.C. to the first century A.D. will be placed next to manuscripts dating from the ninth through the 15th centuries that include similar designs or themes. In this way, the exhibition highlights the relationships between art from vastly different periods and cultures, and the artists who created them.

"Manuscript illuminators of the Middle Ages responded to the heritage of antiquity in many ways, adapting ancient motifs to a new medium, to new artistic purposes, and to a new religion," says Deborah Gribbon, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum and vice president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. "By placing ancient objects side by side with medieval manuscript pages, the show will examine the fascinating connections between the two eras and bring together objects from the Getty’s permanent collection that are traditionally galleries apart."

Despite the disintegration and collapse of the Roman Empire over the course of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., which caused a severe disruption of culture, its overwhelming influence reverberated throughout Europe for many centuries. Ruins of ancient buildings still existed, and coins and gems from the classical period were re-used in church vessels and bookbindings. Texts of ancient Greece and Rome still survive today because they were copied and re-copied by monks in medieval monasteries. Visitors to the exhibition will learn about the many ways in which medieval illuminators responded to the artistic heritage of ancient Greece and Rome, transforming figures of history, creatures of classical mythology, and forms of the classical world to the very different cultural context of the Middle Ages.

The griffin, a mythological beast that was a favorite motif in ancient art from about the third century B.C., is sometimes seen in medieval works. The Getty exhibition displays an ancient Greek bronze statuette of a griffin next to a page from the Ruskin Hours, an early medieval religious manuscript dating from around 1300. In the margin of the manuscript, a handsome griffin fends off the attack of a rearing unicorn, a beast of medieval mythology. During the Middle Ages these fabulous beasts took on multiple spiritual meanings, depending on their context in individual manuscripts.

Also on display is a Greek drinking cup from about 510 B.C. with an image of a happy guest at a symposium (drinking party) playing a stringed instrument as he sings. The cup's medieval counterpart, a 13th-century psalter (manuscript of the Biblical psalms), depicts the ancient Israelite king David as he sings and accompanies himself on a harp, emphasizing his role as author of the psalms. The ancient Greek subject of a man playing an instrument has fundamentally changed in the devotional book from a classical depiction of a social occasion filled with wine and song to a more sober medieval representation charged with deeply religious meaning.

The birth of the illuminated manuscript was a phenomenon particularly associated with the rise of Christianity. But within these books, the artistic culture of antiquity was preserved and put to new uses. Medieval artists borrowed ancient motifs for their dazzling illuminated manuscripts, transforming them in the process in much the same way that many of today's artists have a relationship with the art of the past.

All events are free and take place in the Harold M. Williams Auditorium, unless otherwise noted. Seating reservations are required. For reservations and information, please call 310-440-7300 or visit


Antiquity, Pseudo-Antiquity, and Anti-Antiquity in Medieval Art
Lawrence Nees, professor of art history, University of Delaware, discusses the complex and conflicted attitudes of medieval artists and patrons to the Greco-Roman artistic heritage. Artists sought not only to emulate or rival, but also to re-interpret, improve upon, or sometimes warn against the ancient tradition. Reservations available beginning August 26. Sunday September 28, 2003, 4 p.m.


Alexander Mihaylovich, a painter who explores museological practice and the objectification of history through examination of ancient imagery and archeological fragments, speaks on the exhibition. Sign up at the Museum Information Desk beginning at 4:30 p.m.
Friday October 3, 2003, 6 and 7:30 p.m., Museum galleries

Ancient myths and medieval legends come to life at this family celebration inspired by the exhibition. Join us for Herculean adventures from ancient Greece and Rome, and troubadour tales from the Middle Ages. Enjoy a full day of music, dance, theater, storytelling, and interactive workshops.
Sunday October 19, 2003, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., Museum Courtyard


Manuscripts in the Age of the Cathedrals, 1200–1350 (working title)
This display celebrates the achievements of Gothic manuscript illumination in northern Europe from around 1200 to 1350. Characteristic aspects of illumination from the period include the lavish use of gold leaf, an extraordinary sense of breadth and volume, and the employment of the painted letter and the margins of the page as a field for figural decoration. As shown in this exhibition, Gothic manuscripts contain some of the most innovative and beautiful painting to survive from the Middle Ages.
Tuesday December 16 - Sunday March 7, 2004

Manuscripts in the Age of the Monasteries, 800–1200 (working title)
Focusing on the period in which characteristically medieval forms of book decoration came into being, this exhibition of manuscripts drawn from the Getty's permanent collection features highlights from the reign of Charlemagne (around 800) through the rise of the universities in Europe around 1200, when scribes and illuminators produced manuscripts of great variety and beauty. The display introduces the texts that circulated in the period and the range of painted decoration that embellished these texts, from the stately narrative scenes found in Ottonian liturgical books to the exuberant initials inhabited by biting dogs characteristic of 12th-century illumination at Montecassino.
Tuesday March 23 - Sunday June 13, 2004

The International Style (working title)
At the beginning of the 15th century, the interchange among the princely courts of Paris, Prague, and Milan facilitated the sharing of artistic ideas and the emergence of a new visual aesthetic. The refined International style—characterized by the presence of tall, graceful figures clothed in fashionable, courtly costumes and set against bright, intricately patterned backgrounds—swept across Europe, remaining popular in some locations until late in that century.
Tuesday June 29 - Sunday September 5, 2004

Note to Editors: Images available upon request.
For more information, the public can call 310-440-7300 or visit

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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.

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