August 20, 2019

C’est magnifique: Manuscript exhibition vividly illuminates the art of Medieval France

The development of manuscript illumination is perhaps one of the lesser-known chapters in the history of French art, largely overshadowed by the popularity of later — especially Impressionist — painting in France. But, as a new exhibition at the Getty Center shows, artistic invention was alive and well in medieval France — within the pages of books.

“Imagining the Past in France, 1250-1500,” on view through Feb. 6, explores the theme of history in manuscripts, focusing on how images were used both to enhance and influence audiences’ experience of the text. The works here have been culled by co-curators Elizabeth Morrison of the Getty and Anne D. Hedeman, a University of Illinois professor, from collections throughout Europe and the United States and contain lavish illustrations of epic adventures and heroism. These range from biblical stories of Creation, King David and Jesus, to histories of Caesar, Alexander the Great and Louis XII, all of which served not only to entertain France’s emerging bourgeoisie, but also to further an evolving national identity. In addition, the exhibition showcases more than 200 years of artistic innovation, some of which laid the groundwork for developments in French and European painting for decades to come.

The exhibition’s starting point is the mid-13th century, when the Bible was translated in its entirety into French for the first time. These vernacular Bibles expanded the audience for manuscripts to include people who couldn’t read Latin, and the illustrations made the text even more accessible.

One early manuscript, displayed in the show’s first gallery, contains “Scenes From the Life of David.” Part of a Bible created for King Louis IX during his first crusade to the Holy Land (1248-1254), these early illuminations reflect Gothic and Byzantine design – at first glance, the page looks like a stained-glass window in a church. Drawn beneath separate, triptych-inspired arches, sequential scenes show David first as ruler and warrior; next as a pious man dancing before the Ark of the Covenant; and finally as a man humbled, being rebuked for his transgression with Bathsheba. 

As in many of the period’s manuscripts, “There was a lot of emphasis on heroes like David, warrior kings, who went out and fought for their faith,” Morrison said in an interview. These tales, she added, served one of the main purposes of the texts — “to substantiate the kings’ claims to rule.” David’s life is also presented here as a morality tale, one that Louis IX, who suffered guilt over his failures during his crusade, could relate to, Morrison said.

While continuing to commission biblical stories, patrons of illuminated manuscripts — primarily nobles and monarchs — also requested histories and romance. In contrast to our modern conception of history as a chronological recitation of facts, during the Middle Ages “history” could include anything from literary to pictorial representations of real or imagined events. A “romance,” a story related to ancient history, often featured fanciful, mythical material. In “Alexander Explores Underwater,” from “Roman d’Alexandre,” the warrior who defeated the Greeks and Persians is shown under the sea, in a glass diving bell, where dogs, sheep and people walk the sea floor. In other manuscripts, kings and warriors battle half-human/half-animal foes, griffins and, of course, dragons.

“Roman d’Alexandre,” 1290s, Unknown Artist. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin, Germany.

Unlike today’s books, these manuscripts are neither small nor portable — many are a foot high and weigh close to 60 pounds. The largest in the exhibition is “Chronique Universal,” a massive, comprehensive history of the world, compiled in the 1470s, that is more than 33 feet long (a 15-foot section of the scroll is on display in the first gallery). Medieval books were commonly placed on a table or stand to be read aloud, often by a professional reader, while guests of the royal families, court functionaries, courtiers and the like might walk around to better view the pictures. “Wealthy patrons used the books for ostentatious display — they were the Ferraris of their day,” Morrison said.

Increasingly, artists modified and, ultimately, broke away from their religiously inspired beginnings. Some portrayed a new depth of human emotion, such as the abject sadness seen in “Bathsheba Grieving in Her Palace” (circa 1405-1420). Others painted details that weren’t in the text, thereby using images to emphasize subtleties in a story, or even to offer an alternative meaning. In “The Story of Joseph,” the Limbourg brothers — among the most renowned illuminators of the 15th century — signaled Potiphar’s wife’s wantonness by showing her exposing her breasts to all as she falsely accuses Joseph of seducing her.

“The Story of Adam and Eve,” a work created in Paris in the early 1400s by an anonymous painter known as the Boucicaut Master, is one of the exhibition’s prime examples of innovative composition and format. As the frontispiece in a collection of cautionary tales titled “Concerning the Fates of Illustrious Men and Women,” it is intricately detailed and brightly painted with especially vibrant blues, reds and greens. The scenes comprising the fall of man are — as in other manuscripts — arranged sequentially, but this time within a single frame. Adam, Eve and the serpent are in the center of the composition, the action progressing in a spiral as they are expelled from the garden, forced to toil, become stooped with age and, lastly, approach the storyteller/writer outside the walls of the garden, where he will faithfully record their story for the edification of readers. The action is set within and surrounded by a well-executed landscape — a precursor of the centrality of landscape in European painting to come.

“Adam and Eve,” like so many of the exhibition’s manuscripts, is remarkable for the delicacy of the artist’s work. The finely etched figures, expressive faces and minutely detailed decorations remind us of the medieval faith in, and the power of, a picture to tell a story — and to tell it well.

For more information about the exhibition and related events, visit