Museum Home Past Exhibitions Images of Violence in the Medieval World

December 21, 2004–March 13, 2005 at the Getty Center

Death of the Consul / Boucicaut Master
The Death of the Roman Consul Marcus Atilius Regulus
Boucicaut Master and Workshop, about 1415
interactive Zoom In
video Video: Curator Elizabeth Morrison discusses the exhibition.

Violence was considered a necessary part of life in the Middle Ages (about 500–1500 A.D.). People were surrounded by violence in many forms, including wars, brutal tournaments, and deadly rivalries for power and land. Graphic depictions of violent religious events, such as Christ's Crucifixion, were also common.

This exhibition explores the presence of violence in the Middle Ages and examines how images of violence were used to teach viewers moral lessons and appeal to their emotions.

The Dangers of Daily Life

No one, not even the mighty, can avoid the harsh blows of fate. This is the message of the gruesome execution scene above, in which two men brutally crush Roman consul Marcus Atilius Regulus. Marcus's high-handed treatment of his enemies led to his capture and torture in 255 B.C.

Massacre of Family / Unknown
A Massacre of Family Members
French, about 1460–1470
interactive Zoom In
audio Listen to a discussion of this image.

Brute force was accepted and even respected in the Middle Ages. Violence played a major role in family disputes, in the justice system, and even in education and entertainment.

In the late Middle Ages, a father's money and power passed to his eldest son upon his death. This often caused deadly family rivalries, such as the one shown here.

A kneeling man is blindfolded and about to be executed. Through the doorway, another man is about to be drowned. The men in the window above the executioner are the ones who ordered the assassinations. They look on coolly as their relatives are brutally killed.

Alexander Fights / M Jardin vertueuse
Alexander Fights in the Town of the Sudracae
Attributed to the Master of the Jardin de vertueuse consolation, about 1468–1475
interactive Zoom In

The Art of War

War shaped much of the history of the Middle Ages. Nations clashed over land, vassals revolted against lords, and crusaders waged holy wars in the name of religion. Medieval politicians often pointed to warlike behavior in biblical and ancient history to justify their violent schemes.

This page comes from a book dedicated to Charles the Bold (1433–1477), duke of Burgundy in central France. It shows Greek emperor Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) facing an armed mob in a landscape littered with fallen soldiers.

Alexander had built a vast empire through war and was a model for Charles, who also wanted to extend his lands. The artist emphasized the contemporary relevance of Alexander's exploits by making the armor, weapons, and architecture characteristic of the 1400s.

Flagellation / Bening
The Flagellation
Simon Bening, about 1525–1530
interactive Zoom In

Christian Suffering

The martyrdom of saints, the torments of hell, and the suffering of Christ were all popular subjects in medieval art.

Vivid images of pain reminded the faithful that Christ's suffering was essential to the possibility of salvation. In this flagellation scene, rivulets of blood flow down Christ's body as he is mercilessly whipped by four men. His serene white face contrasts with the goblin-like features of his four torturers.

This image is accompanied by a prayer addressed directly to Jesus. The picture and prayer encouraged readers to share in Christ's agony.

Like the other works in this exhibition, this image was designed to have a powerful emotional impact on the viewer.

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