Museum Home Current Exhibitions In the Beginning Was the Word: Medieval Gospel Illumination

August 30–November 27, 2011 at the Getty Center

Saint John, Mesrop of Khizan Isfahan
Saint John (detail), from a gospel book, Mesrop of Khizan Isfahan, 1615

The four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John offered powerful accounts of the life of Jesus Christ and formed the basis of the religion founded by his disciples. As the physical manifestation of the Word of God, Gospels were considered the most important books of the Middle Ages.

The word Gospel comes from the Old English word god-spell, meaning "good news." This was in turn a translation of the Greek word for this collection of texts: evangelion. With examples from Western Europe, Ethiopia, Byzantium, and Armenia, this exhibition traces the tradition of Gospel illumination in Christian art and worship.

In this detail, the Evangelist John turns his head upward as he dictates his Gospel to the scribe seated before him. The logos, or word of God, is vividly represented by the radiating lines that connect John's mouth with the heavens.These delicate white lines painted on blue indicate not simply his speech to the scribe seated before him, but also the heavenly source of inspiration that enables him to dictate his account of the life and teachings of Christ.

Saint Mark
Saint Mark (detail), leaf from a gospel book, Constantinople, about 1325–45

Translating the Word

Spreading the teachings of the Gospels was an important feature of early Christianity, and as a result, these texts were quickly translated from Greek into the many spoken languages of the world. The manuscripts in this section were produced between the ninth century through the seventeenth century and in Western Europe, Ethiopia, Byzantium, and Armenia.

In spite of this incredible chronological and geographical breadth, the main aspects of the program of illumination remained relatively uniform. Gospels typically contained a portrait of each of the four evangelists as well as decorated canon tables. In each example, however, subtle variations are clear, revealing distinct regional inflections and hints of the artistic cultures that produced them.

The Evangelist Mark is shown here in the act of sharpening his pen as he prepares to write the text of his Gospel. Other instruments of the scribe's trade, including an inkpot, a compass, and a bottle of ink, are seen on the desk in front of Mark. This portrait once graced a volume of the Gospels that was copied in Greek by the famous scribe George Galesiotes in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

The Seven Last Words of Christ, Master of Sir John Fastolf
The Seven Last Words of Christ (detail), from a book of hours, Master of Sir John Fastolf, about 1430–40

The Life of Christ Illustrated

Apart from portraits of their authors, Gospel books were often illustrated with scenes from the life of Christ. Reserved in most cases for luxury commissions, such pictures were meant to make the books text more easily understandable and to emphasize its importance. llustrations of the stories of Christ's life also appeared in books for the Mass and in private prayer books.

In this image, the viewer is confronted with the bloodied and pale body of Christ. He is surrounded by speech scrolls with his seven last utterances before his death, written in Latin, and culled from all four Gospels. The four books of the Gospel, each with its own narrative version of the life of Jesus Christ, were often combined in an attempt to reveal the complete and true story.

The purpose of this image is not to be a faithful rendering of the account of the Crucifixion. Instead it was designed to inspire meditation on Christ's suffering. On the right, a medieval cardinal, cloaked in red, gazes up at the tortured body of Christ and counts on his fingers as he cites these seven important speeches. The speeches were often referred to in prayer as the seven last words.

Initial D: the calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, Master of Gerona
Initial D: The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew (detail), from an antiphonal, Master of Gerona, late 1200s

The Gospels in Church Ceremony

In the first two centuries of the common era, public reading of religious texts formed the core of both Jewish and Christian worship. This tradition persisted in the medieval Christian church. Books made for this purpose were venerated as sacred, along with the other furnishings of a church's altar.

Since few people in the Middle Ages were literate, listening was the sole means for most people to receive the information in the Gospels. Excerpts from the Gospels were read aloud during daily services and for particular feast days. Later in the Middle Ages, with the rise of literacy, private prayer books came to include readings from the Gospels as well.

In this Initial D, Christ calls his first two apostles to their new vocation, entreating the fishermen Peter and Andrew to cast aside their net and become instead "fishers of men" (piscatores hominum). The Latin phrase is part of the chant for the Feast of Saint Andrew. The words for the chant and the fishing episode are taken from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. A choir would have gathered around this book to sing the antiphon, or response, to the readings for the eight prayer services celebrated daily by monks, nuns, and clerics of the Church.