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New Exhibition Highlights Getty Museum's Illuminated Choir Books

Songs of Praise: Illuminated Choir Books
July 23 - October 13, 2002

May 16, 2002

LOS ANGELES—Songs of Praise: Illuminated Choir Books, on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum beginning July 23, is a celebration of the golden age of the illuminated choir book in Western Europe. On view through October 13, the exhibition features 21 illuminated manuscripts and leaves and cuttings from choir books dating from the 12th to the 16th century, all from the Getty Museum’s permanent collection. It presents the various types of choir books and their characteristic illumination and also includes a section on historical music notation. Four audioguide stops, some of which include brief segments of the music displayed within the books, provide further insight.

"Books containing the songs, or chants, of religious services were generally large volumes designed so that they could be seen by groups of singers," says Elizabeth Teviotdale of the Getty Museum’s department of manuscripts, who organized the exhibition. "Because they stood open on lecterns during religious services and contributed to the visual splendor of the sanctuary, they were frequently sumptuously illuminated with brilliant colors and gold."

Exhibition Explores Relationship between Image and Text

The illumination of choir books primarily consists of large painted initials containing figural scenes. The subject of a letter was often inspired by the event commemorated on a holy day. For example, an initial R showing Christ triumphantly rising from a stone coffin marks the beginning of the Easter chants in a choir book (late 1400s or early 1500s) illuminated by Antonio da Monza.

Sometimes, an initial illustrates the text of the chant it introduces. This is the case for a large painted A in a manuscript (late 1200s) illuminated by the Master of Gerona. Nestled inside the letter, Christ of the Second Coming is enthroned in heaven surrounded by angels. This imagery corresponds directly to the text of the chant introduced by the initial. Based on a prophecy of Isaiah, it proclaims "Behold from afar I see the coming power of God." In a Christian context, the "coming power of God" was understood as the Second Coming of Christ.

The pages of choir books with painted initials were often further embellished with marginal or border decoration. On the Easter page in the book illuminated by Antonio, the border is filled with motifs derived from antique gems and from the decoration of the walls of the newly discovered Golden House of Nero, an ancient imperial villa in Rome. The use of these motifs betrays Antonio’s fascination with classical antiquity, an interest he shared with many other Italian artists of the Renaissance.

As a result of changes in Christian worship brought about by the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, most medieval and Renaissance choir books outlived their usefulness by the end of the 16th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, collectors cut the painted initials from illuminated choir books and collected them into albums or framed them for display as independent paintings. One such initial included in the exhibition is an S showing the Conversion of Saint Paul (about 1440–50), which is the only manuscript illumination attributed to the North Italian court artist Antonio Pisano, called Pisanello. Although scholars may lament the loss of the original context for this illumination, they have the collectors of earlier centuries to thank for its survival.

Note to editors: color images available upon request.

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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.