Museum Home Past Exhibitions The Medieval Bookshelf: From Romance to Astronomy

January 24–April 9, 2006 at the Getty Center

Seven Liberal Arts / Coetivy Master
Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts (detail) from The Consolation of Philosophy, French, about 1460–1470
learn_more See a close-up of the seven ladies representing the liberal arts.
learn_more See the complete image.

Bibles and prayer books were not the only books produced in Europe during the Middle Ages (about 500–1500 A.D.). This exhibition showcases examples of the vast array of lavishly illustrated nonreligious manuscripts that were also produced during this time.

Fables, romances, and how-to books provided entertainment and instruction. Historical manuscripts chronicled the past, and books on science, law, and philosophy served the growing university market.

The image above comes from an elaborately illustrated copy of The Consolation of Philosophy by sixth-century philosopher Boethius. Lady Philosophy converses with the author; behind her stand seven young women representing the seven liberal arts (see detail).

Romance of the Rose / Unknown
Music in the Garden from The Romance of the Rose, French, about 1405
learn_more See a close-up of the figures in the garden.

Entertainment and Instruction

The late Middle Ages saw a proliferation of illustrated books for the entertainment and instruction of the upper classes. Lavish paintings in the books helped readers visualize the stories.

This page comes from one of the most richly illustrated surviving copies of the Romance of the Rose, an immensely popular French poem about courtly love.

The illumination shows figures playing music in a garden, an activity described in the adjoining text. Their clothing represents the height of early 15th-century fashion, with long, hanging sleeves and hems that sweep the ground.

Emperor at Court / Unknown
An Emperor at Court from The Story of Two Lovers, French, about 1460–1470
learn_more See a close-up of the figures.

At right, a man in a magenta robe argues his case before the Holy Roman Emperor on a page from Historia de Duobus Amantibus (The Story of Two Lovers), a manuscript containing copies of letters written by Eneas Silvius Piccolomini (later Pope Pius II) describing the dangers of life at court.

At the top left, we see the prisoner's subsequent fate: he is taken to the city gate and stabbed to death.

At less than seven inches high, this manuscript was probably intended for personal use.

Hens and Corn / M Froissart
The Parable of Hens and Corn from the Chronicles, Master of the Getty Froissart, about 1480
learn_more See a close-up of the figures and the birds.


People of the Middle Ages sought to understand their world by looking to the past. Most religious books were written in Latin, the language of the Church, but history manuscripts were often written in the vernacular, the language native to a region, such as French or German.

Historical figures in contemporary dress frequently enliven the pages of these manuscripts, offering a link between past and present for medieval readers.

This image from Froissart's Chronicles tells the story of a challenge issued to the king of Hungary by the leader of the Turks. The hens eating the corn in the foreground symbolize the king's plan to devour the Turkish armies.

Belshazzar's Feast / Unknown
The Writing on the Wall at Belshazzar's Feast from the World Chronicle, German, about 1400–1410
learn_more See a close-up of the figures and the mysterious hand.

King Belshazzar celebrates the looting of the Temple at Jerusalem in this miniature from Rudolf von Ems's World Chronicle. A disembodied hand writes a cryptic message on the wall predicting that the king will die for his act of sacrilege.

In the Middle Ages, Biblical stories such as this one were included in vast compilations considered to encompass the history of the world. The rhyming German text accompanying this image was probably read aloud at aristocratic gatherings.

Initial Q: Abbot / Unknown
Initial Q: An Abbot Receiving a Child from the Decretals, French, about 1170–1180
learn_more See a close-up of the abbot and the boy.

Science, Law, and Philosophy

Students flocked to universities in the 12th and 13th centuries to study law, medicine, theology, and the liberal arts. This stimulated the market for texts on these subjects. Upper-class patrons also commissioned expensive copies of academic texts.

An abbot eagerly grasps a bag of money and a small boy in this image from the Decretum (Decretals), a reference book on church law. In the Middle Ages, devout parents sometimes placed their sons in monasteries to become monks, occasionally making donations to the monastery in the children's names. The image cautions readers that service to God, not worldly gain, must govern these transactions.

Alchandreus / Virgil Master
Alchandreus Presents His Work to a King from Book of the Philosopher Alchandreus, Virgil Master, about 1405
learn_more See a close-up of Alchandreus with his book and astrolabe.

The philosopher Alchandreus wrote about the movement of the planets, the signs of the zodiac, and the art of predicting the future. In the image at right we see him kneeling to present a book to a king in a lavish reception hall, surrounded by scholars.

European aristocrats commissioned scientific treatises with increasing frequency during the late Middle Ages; this manuscript, a copy of the Book of the Philosopher Alchandreus, was most likely commissioned by a powerful official close to the French royal court.

The exhibition is located at the Getty Center, Museum, North Pavilion.