Museum Home Past Exhibitions Rare Finds: Ten Years of Collecting Manuscripts

February 12–April 20, 2008 at the Getty Center

Creation of the World / German
The Creation of the World from the Stammheim Missal, German, about 1170s
audio Audio: Curator Thomas Kren describes the Stammheim Missal and explains the scene on this page.
learn_more See more pages from the Stammheim Missal.
learn_more See a close-up of the circles representing the days of creation on this page.

This exhibition features selected manuscript acquisitions made by the Getty Museum since the Getty Center opened in 1997.

In building its collection of manuscripts, the Museum's goal is to convey the rich history of medieval and Renaissance book illumination through works of the highest quality. The purchase in 1983 of more than 100 examples from the collection of Peter and Irene Ludwig of Aachen, Germany, provided the collection with a strong foundation and its first works of medieval art. Since then, the Museum has focused its efforts on enhancing the overall quality and breadth of its manuscripts holdings. This exhibition describes our progress.

Many of the world's artistic treasures are held in private collections. When museums acquire such works, they make them available to a much broader audience. In 1997 the Museum acquired one of its greatest masterpieces, the Stammheim Missal, which had been publicly exhibited only twice before. In fact, because the book was originally commissioned for a medieval monastery, even in the Middle Ages it was probably brought out only on special feast days and seen exclusively by high-ranking officials of the church and court. More people have viewed it over the last decade than over the previous eight centuries.

Hyena / English
A Hyena from the Northumberland Bestiary, English, about 1250–60
audio Audio: Curator Thomas Kren explains how the Museum acquired the Northumberland Bestiary and why he was excited to add it to the collection.
learn_more See more pages from the Northumberland Bestiary.
learn_more See a close-up of the hyena.

Discoveries and Rediscoveries

Unexpected opportunities to acquire exceptional manuscripts have considerably enhanced the collection. Some of these manuscripts were unrecorded; others were rediscovered after years of being thought lost. Finding such works—such as the Northumberland Bestiary, a page of which is shown here—is a joy for both the collector and the scholar.

The Northumberland Bestiary is a major example of English Gothic illumination, and especially of the illustrated bestiary ("book of beasts") popular in England in the 1100s and 1200s. The book had been acquired by forebears of the dukes of Northumberland by the late 1600s. However, it was only made known publicly by the tenth duke, Hugh Percy, in 1950. It immediately attracted wide interest among book lovers, art collectors, and scholars.

The Northumberland collections at Alnwick Castle (where scenes in the Harry Potter movies were filmed) have yielded other treasure, too. About a decade ago, a small painting by Raphael, now in the National Gallery in London, was discovered hanging in a dark hallway.

Initial Q: David Before Saul / M Ingeborg Psalter
Initial Q: David Before Saul from a psalter, Master of the Ingeborg Psalter, after 1205
learn_more See more pages from this psalter.

Another rediscovery occurred in 1986, when a masterpiece of early French Gothic manuscript illumination appeared in a sale in Avranches, a small town in northwest France. Nothing had been heard of the manuscript since 1785, when it was described in the catalogue of an auction sale in Paris. The manuscript's reappearance caused a sensation in the art world.

The manuscript, which was purchased by the Getty Museum in 1999, was painted by the same group of artists who illuminated the psalter of Queen Ingeborg of France, which is considered to be the most important example of early French Gothic book illumination. That manuscript is now in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, near Paris.

Ascension of Christ / Bonaguida
The Ascension of Christ from the Laudario of Sant'Agnese, Pacino di Bonaguida, about 1340
audio Audio: Curator Thomas Kren describes the image on this leaf and explains why many Italian manuscripts were disassembled in the 1800s.
learn_more See a close-up of the confraternity members in the margins.

Collecting Leaves versus Books

Since the late Middle Ages, collectors have cut individual illuminations and even entire pages from books. As a result of this practice, leaves and cuttings from books are common in collections worldwide. When a truly important book has been divided and its leaves dispersed, the Museum has endeavored to acquire more than one example of its illumination in order to offer visitors a taste of the originality and complexity of the entire book.

In 2003 the Museum acquired this and two other leaves (The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence and Pentecost) from the most ambitious known Florentine manuscript. The book was created for the Confraternity of Sant'Agnese, a group of devout laymen who came together for Christian religious celebrations. Members of this group are shown praying in the lower margins of this leaf.

The Lamb Defeating the Ten Kings from the Commentary on the Apocalypse, Spanish, about 1200–35
audio Audio: Curator Thomas Kren discusses the exotic imagery on this page.

Building on Strengths and Filling Gaps

In building its manuscripts collection, the Museum endeavors to balance two goals: to acquire exceptional masterworks and to tell the comprehensive story of the history of medieval European manuscript illumination. These goals are achieved by building on already strong areas and by assembling works that represent all of the great schools of manuscript illumination as well as the major artists, the many types of books, and even the most important patrons.

This leaf comes from an illuminated manuscript containing a commentary on the Apocalypse (the New Testament book of Revelation) by Spanish scholar Beatus of Liébana. The book, whose leaves are now dispersed, features poetic, visionary imagery of the end of the world. It is among the greatest examples of Spanish medieval art, as well as the last known illumination of Beatus's work.

Alchandreus Presents His Work to a King / 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 kneeling before the king.

Sometimes a single acquisition meets several of the Museum's collecting goals at once. In 2003, the Getty acquired the Book of the Philosopher Alchandreus, which claims to be a Latin translation of an Arabic treatise on astronomy. Arabic science had a great influence on western European thought during the Middle Ages.

Illumination most commonly accompanied medieval religious texts, and books of Christian devotion and theology are well represented at the Museum. However, rarer secular texts such as this one—which reveal much about medieval life and thought—have great appeal today, and the Museum has tried to strengthen this area. At the same time, Parisian illumination from around 1400, of which this book is an example, belongs to one of the major epochs in the history of manuscript illumination.

Initial V / Monaco
Initial V: The Ascension from a gradual, Lorenzo Monaco, Zanobi Strozzi, and Battista di Biago Sanguini, designed about 1410 and completed about 1431
learn_more See a close-up of Christ ascending.

Unexpected Opportunities

The market for high-quality manuscript illumination is small and unpredictable. Not only are the whereabouts of exceptional books and leaves sometimes unknown, but it is difficult to predict whether or when owners might want to sell their treasures. Patience rules.

High-quality works of Italian manuscript illumination are especially hard to find, and between 1984 and 2003 the Museum purchased only a few major examples. However, starting in 2003, three major collections of Italian leaves and cuttings appeared on the market, along with outstanding examples from other sources. By acquiring two dozen leaves and cuttings and one major book, the Museum quickly transformed its Italian collection.

Probably centuries ago, this large historiated initial was removed from a set of choir books made for the Florentine monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The cycle of books, considered one of the great achievements of early Renaissance illumination in Florence, was so ambitious that it took several decades to complete.

Christ in Majesty / de Lonhy
Christ in Majesty from a missal, Antoine de Lonhy, about 1460. Gift of the Emerson Family in honor of John S. Bonnell
learn_more See a close-up of Christ seated on the arc of heaven.

The Role of Gifts

The Museum's manuscripts collection has grown mainly through purchased acquisitions. However, most major museum collections are built not only through purchases but also through the generous gifts of discerning collectors. In a similar way, the Museum has been fortunate to benefit from the donation of several examples of high-quality manuscript illumination.

The Museum was privileged to receive the gift of this splendid leaf from the Emerson family of San Francisco, who donated it in honor of Dr. John Sutherland Bonnell (1893–1992). In 1976 Dr. Bonnell, the pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, presented the leaf to his son-in-law, the Reverend James Emerson, who in turn donated it to the Museum in 2001.