Indepth Arts News: |
"The Art of Giving in the Middle Ages"
2000-11-21 until 2001-02-04
J. Paul Getty Center
LOS ANGELES, CA,
Through 20 illuminated manuscripts from the J. Paul Getty Museums
renowned collection, The Art of Giving in the Middle Ages explores the diverse meanings of
gift giving in medieval and early modern society, many of which still hold sway today. On
view at the Getty November 21, 2000 through February 4, 2001, the exhibition focuses on
three themes: the models for giving found in scripture and the lives of the saints, the culture
of giving in medieval society, and the gift of the book in the Middle Ages and beyond. The
manuscripts on view include saints lives, religious service books, histories, and devotional
books originating in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire and dating from the 11th to the
16th century. Among the artists represented are Simon Bening, Gerard Horenbout, Simon
Marmion, and Taddeo Crivelli.
Gifts were an important part of the ceremony and diplomacy of medieval Europe, says
Thomas Kren, the Museums curator of manuscripts. They were used to secure the
allegiance of a rulers subjects and to solidify ties among princes and high-ranking clergy.
Medieval Christians gave money, land, or luxury goods to religious institutions in return for
prayers on behalf of the donors soul, and charity was considered a Christian virtue.
Illuminated manuscripts were themselves among the most costly of gifts.
One group of works in the exhibition explores the models for giving found in scripture and the
lives of the saints. The most important scriptural model was the presentation of gifts to the
infant Jesus by three wise men. A miniature from a German psalter shows the wise men
offering their gifts to the child before a shimmering gold background. Another miniature
shows a model for charity taken from the life of the English saint Edward the Confessor: a
ring he had given to a beggar is miraculously returned to him years later--a reward for his
A second group of manuscripts reveals the culture of giving in this period. In the Middle
Ages, charity took new forms as individuals, like Saint Hedwig of Silesia, displayed
compassion for societys underprivileged by personally feeding the sick, giving alms, and
helping the imprisoned. Not all gifts were charitable, though, as giving also played an
important role in political affairs. Gifts were a critical feature of diplomatic protocol,
demonstrating the donors good will. Scholars also made gifts of their literary works to
powerful princes in the hopes of future patronage. Vasco da Lucena, for example, dedicated
his French translation of an ancient Roman biography of Alexander the Great to Charles the
Bold, duke of Burgundy--an act that simultaneously honored the ruler and elevated the status
of the donor. In the Gettys deluxe illuminated copy of the text, Vasco is shown kneeling
before the duke and presenting his work.
The final section of the installation focuses on the gift of the book in the Middle Ages and
beyond. Illuminated manuscripts circulated among religious institutions both as diplomatic
gifts and for the mutual benefit of monks and clerics. Books that served as gift objects are
among the most sumptuously illuminated of the Middle Ages, and a number of service books
and manuscripts of scripture that were created to be gifts to monasteries and high-ranking
clerics are included in the exhibition. Outside the cloister, books were given on a variety of
occasions. The illuminated prayer book known as the Gualenghi-dEste Hours, for example,
was made on the occasion of the marriage of Andrea Gualengo to Orsina dEste, a member of
the ruling family of the north Italian city of Ferrara. Even today, a medieval manuscript can
mark an exchange of vows: the exhibition concludes with a 15th-century illuminated prayer
book that the 20th-century American bibliophile Philip Hofer gave as an engagement present
to his wife.
Master of Sir John Fastolf, Saint Edward the Confessor.
Book of hours;
England or France, about 1430-40.
Tempera and gold leaf on parchment.
Ms. 5, fol. 42v.