Museum Home Past Exhibitions French Manuscript Illumination of the Middle Ages

January 23–April 15, 2007 at the Getty Center

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

French painting of the Middle Ages is known to us today largely through images found on the pages of books. This exhibition presents some of the most beautiful and important French manuscripts from the Museum's collection, which includes books spanning over 700 years, from the mid-800s through the early 1500s.

Manuscript illumination was a favorite of French kings and high-ranking nobles. A French king, possibly Louis XI, sits surrounded by elegantly dressed courtiers in this miniature, which accompanies a letter describing courtly life in bluntly critical terms. The king looks directly out at the viewer instead of paying attention to his courtiers, echoing the text's claim that the king neglected the troubles and burdens of those around him.

The Crucifixion / Nivardus of Milan
The Crucifixion from a sacramentary, attributed to Nivardus of Milan, about 1000–1025
learn_more See a close-up of Mary and John.

Manuscripts and Monasteries

From the 800s to the 1200s A.D., illuminated manuscripts were produced almost exclusively in monasteries. Monks wrote the text and painted the illustrations for these books, which focused on religion as well as philosophy, law, and a wide range of other subjects. The illustrations "bookmarked" important passages and sometimes depicted events described in the text.

This page from a sacramentary, or service book of the Mass, contains the first words of the prayers recited during the preparation of the Eucharist, when bread and wine are consecrated and consumed as memorials of Christ's death.

The artist placed the words, Te igitur ("Thee, therefore"), between the figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John. He transformed the opening letter T into the cross of the Crucifixion and focused on Mary's and John's sorrowful expressions and postures.

Adoration of the Magi / Unknown
Initial Q: David Before Saul, Master of the Ingeborg Psalter, after 1205
learn_more See a close-up of David and Saul.

Towns and Universities

During the 1200s, manuscript production gradually shifted from monasteries to towns, where newly founded universities created a need for more books. Aristocrats and wealthy merchants also began to commission manuscripts, including personal devotional books, romances, histories, and even scientific texts.

King Saul threatens David with his sword in this initial Q from a psalter (book of psalms) that was probably made for a wealthy nobleman to use in private prayer.

The artist gave the figures a tangible weight and finely drew their faces, hair, and drapery. He used a griffin for the leg of the Q, anticipating the later practice of extending human, animal, or vegetal forms into the painted borders of a page.

Destruction of Jerusalem / Unknown
The Destruction of Jerusalem from Concerning the Fates of Illustrious Men and Women, French, about 1415
learn_more See a close-up of the soldiers and buildings.
learn_more See a close-up of the woman roasting her child.

The army of Roman general Titus destroys Jerusalem in this illustration from Concerning the Fates of Illustrious Men and Women, one of the most popular literary works among the French aristocracy of the early 1400s.

The juxtaposition of bright, contrasting colors is typical of early 15th-century miniature illumination. The elaborate border features acanthus leaves and narrative scenes; the bottom roundel shows a legend concerning a starving woman who was said to have eaten her own child during the lengthy siege of the city.

Virgin and Child and Simon de Varie / Fouquet
The Virgin and Child Enthroned (left) and Simon de Varie Kneeling in Prayer (right) from the Hours of Simon de Varie, Jean Fouquet, 1455
learn_more See a close-up of Simon de Varie's face.

Painters and Illuminators

In the Renaissance, artists developed an increasing interest in painting realistic landscapes and human forms. Many artists of the 1400s painted both on panels and on parchment; their illuminations often looked like panel paintings, sometimes complete with painted frames.

Jean Fouquet, one of the finest French artists of the 1400s, painted this two-part miniature for a book of hours (personal prayer book). The Virgin (left) presents the Christ child to Simon de Varie (right), who commissioned the book. He kneels in prayer and receives Christ's blessing. The careful modeling of the faces is a hallmark of Fouquet's art, as is the painted frame in the border, which features flowers looping over a trellis.

Bathsheba Bathing / Bourdichon
Bathsheba Bathing from The Hours of Louis XII, Jean Bourdichon, 1498–1499
Recent Acquisition
learn_more Zoom in

From a window in his palace, David gazes at Bathsheba bathing. Her body is turned outward, seducing the viewer—originally the manuscript's patron Louis XII—as well as David. Gold highlights draw attention to the focal points of the composition: David in the background, Bathsheba with her long, sensuous hair, and the waterspout, which overtly stares at her naked body.

Images of Bathsheba can often be found in books of hours, but rarely in a manner this sexually explicit.

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