Museum Home Current Exhibitions The Gospels in Medieval Manuscript Illumination

October 31, 2006–January 7, 2007 at the Getty Center

Saint Luke / Unknown
Saint Luke, Byzantine, early 1200s
learn_more See a close-up of Saint Luke writing.

This exhibition explores the Gospels as they appeared in Medieval manuscript illumination. It presents books, manuscripts, and leaves drawn primarily from the Museum's manuscripts collection.

The Gospels were of vital importance in telling the story of Jesus and became the key text of Christianity. Books containing the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, or portions of them, were among the most richly decorated and luxurious of all manuscripts produced during the Middle Ages.

Made near the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), this page from a Gospel book shows the single-minded concentration of Saint Luke as he writes his Gospel.

Saint Mark / Unknown
Saint Mark, Byzantine, end of 1200s
learn_more See a close-up of Saint Mark preparing to write.

The Gospel Book

Among Biblical texts, the four Gospels were the most significant to medieval Christians, since they tell the story of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and savior of mankind. The four Gospels were therefore often gathered together in a separate volume in the Middle Ages.

The act of creating such a manuscript is echoed in this image from a Greek Gospel book, which shows Saint Mark writing out his text. The elegance of the book's script, ornament, and picture indicates that it was commissioned by an individual from the highest ranks of society.

Adoration of the Magi / Unknown
The Adoration of the Magi, German, about 1240
learn_more See a close-up of Mary and the Christ Child.

The Life of Christ

The Gospels were often illustrated with scenes from the life of Christ. Because the story was so widely known, however, people were able to follow a series of pictures depicting events from Christ's life even without the accompanying text.

This image of the three wise men paying homage to the newborn Jesus comes from a devotional book that included a pictorial narrative illustrating the life of Christ. This event, the adoration of the Magi, is described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Saint Matthew / M First Prayer Book of Maximilian
Saint Matthew, Workshop of the Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian, 1510–1520
learn_more See a close-up of Saint Matthew and the winged man.

The Evangelists

The writers of the four Gospels, the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were widely revered as saints in the Middle Ages. Each author was usually represented surrounded by writing tools (inks, pens, and parchment) or accompanied by the winged creature traditionally associated with him.

Saint Matthew appears here with his traditional symbol, the winged man, who guides his hand as he writes his Gospel. The passage on the page comes from the Gospel of Matthew: "At that time, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem...."

Decorated Monogram IN / Unknown
Decorated Monogram IN, German, late 900s
learn_more See a close-up of the bird's head in the letter N.

The Gospels in the Liturgy

Few people in the Middle Ages could read, so most churchgoers relied on public readings in church to hear the message of the Gospels (which literally means "good news").

Books such as this Gospel lectionary, which contains readings from the Gospels arranged according to their usage during the Church year, were considered precious liturgical objects and were often lavishly decorated with gold and silver leaf.

This book was copied and illuminated in one of the largest German monasteries at the time of the Ottonian emperors in the 900s.

Canon Table Page / Roslin
Canon Table Page, T'oros Roslin, 1256
learn_more See a close-up of the roosters in the border.

The Canon Tables

Canon tables are indexes that list passages where the same events appear in different Gospels. They often preceded the text of the Gospels in Gospel books and were sumptuously ornamented.

By the early Middle Ages, the columns of numbers in canon tables were usually assembled within painted architectural structures, as in this intricately decorated example from an Armenian Gospel book. This is the earliest known work of T'oros Roslin, the greatest master of medieval Armenian book illumination.

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