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Magnificent Books Used in Medieval Church Services Focus of Getty Museum Exhibition

Ritual Splendor: Illuminated Liturgical Manuscripts On View February 20 through May 6, 2001

January 19, 2001

Los Angeles--Most of the paintings that survive from the Middle Ages are in books, and the illuminated books used by bishops, priests, monks, and nuns in Christian religious services contain some of the most dazzling paintings of the period. Ritual Splendor: Illuminated Liturgical Manuscripts, on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum from February 20 through May 6, 2001, explores the medieval liturgy--the communal ritual of the Church--and its books through 17 exquisite manuscripts drawn from the Museum's permanent collection. The objects in the exhibition date from the 10th to the 16th century and come from throughout Western Europe.

"Some liturgical books were placed on the altar during services and some were carried in solemn processions, while others remained open on a lectern for consultation by the choir," says Elizabeth Teviotdale, associate curator of manuscripts. "These books often contained elaborate decoration in gold and brilliant colors, and they contributed to the visual splendor of religious rituals."

One group of manuscripts in the exhibition focuses on representations of the liturgy. For example, in a luxuriously decorated missal--a book that contains the text of the Mass--made for Cardinal Cosimo de' Migliorati, a miniature shows the most dramatic moment of a Mass taking place in a large church (The Elevation of the Host, the Master of Brussels Initials, Bologna, between 1389 and 1404). In saturated, jewel-like colors, the artist depicted a priest as he raises consecrated bread over his head at the altar. Singers with mouths wide open in song gather around a choir book on a lectern, and the faithful kneel as they gaze up at the bread in the priest's hands. The entire scene is crowned by the church's elaborately decorated roof.

Another group of manuscripts in the exhibition introduces the different types of liturgical books and their characteristic illumination. The books used in the celebration of the liturgy range from small volumes used by a single monk or nun to large choir books consulted by a group of singers. Painted initials containing figural scenes mark important holidays, especially in choir books. For example, in an Italian gradual--a book containing the musically elaborate portions of the Mass--the Resurrection is pictured within the opening letter "R" of the chants for Easter Sunday (Initial R: The Resurrection, Antonio da Monza, Rome, late 1400s or early 1500s).

In some books, full-page miniatures introduce important feast days. In the Stammheim Missal, for example, Christmas is marked by a miniature showing the Nativity of Christ at the center with complementary figures that present a complex allegory of the virgin birth and the arrival of the savior (The Nativity, Stammheim Missal, Hildesheim, probably 1170s). This remarkably well preserved work, heavily adorned with gold, silver, and brilliant colors, was made in a German monastery and probably saved for special occasions. It combines images from the Old and New Testaments with subjects inspired by folklore. In one corner of the Christmas miniature, a unicorn, representing Christ as God and man in one being, places its head in the lap of a chaste woman, understood as a reflection in nature of the belief that a virgin gave birth to Christ.

The final section of the exhibition explores the liturgical year. For medieval Christians, the seasons were marked not only by changes in the weather but also by the observation of holidays that commemorated events in the life of Christ and by periods of fasting that sometimes preceded those holidays. The saints were also memorialized annually, each saint on his or her day. This section of the exhibition includes a variety of liturgical books, each open to the decoration that marks a Christian holiday or season.

Color slides available upon request.

Related book
As a part of the Getty Museum Studies on Art series, Getty Publications will publish The Stammheim Missal, a book by Ms. Teviotdale on one of the dazzling works on view in Ritual Splendor: Illuminated Liturgical Manuscripts. Available at the Museum bookstore during the exhibition and then in other bookstores in May 2001, The Stammheim Missal features 41 color reproductions of the manuscript's major decoration, 24 black-and-white illustrations, and five drawings. To order the paperback book (ISBN 0-89236-615-X, $17.50), call 800-223-3231 or visit www.getty.edu/bookstore.

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