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Special Report

Transforming Tradition: Medieval Manuscripts

Attributed to the Group of Wurzburg 221
Attic Black-Figure Amphora, about 480-460 B.C.
Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum

Anthemion of a Grave Stele, about 320 B.C.
Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Marble with polychromy

Decorated Initial D, 1420-1430
Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Tempera colors, gold leaf, gold paint, and ink on parchment

A Siren and a Centaur, about 1270
Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment


LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA.- The brilliant, complex, and colorful decorations of medieval illuminated manuscripts were rarely the result of pure artistic inspiration. Medieval artists often looked to the rich past for ideas. The new exhibition Transforming Tradition: Ancient Motifs in Medieval Manuscripts, at the Getty from September 23 through November 30, 2003, points out that some of the subjects and details of these dazzling painted books originated, directly or indirectly, in the arts of classical Greece and Rome.

Ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan objects from the sixth century B.C. to the first century A.D. will be placed next to manuscripts dating from the ninth through the 15th centuries that include similar designs or themes. In this way, the exhibition highlights the relationships between art from vastly different periods and cultures, and the artists who created them. 

"Manuscript illuminators of the Middle Ages responded to the heritage of antiquity in many ways, adapting ancient motifs to a new medium, to new artistic purposes, and to a new religion," says Deborah Gribbon, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum and vice president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. "By placing ancient objects side by side with medieval manuscript pages, the show will examine the fascinating connections between the two eras and bring together objects from the Getty’s permanent collection that are traditionally galleries apart." 

Despite the disintegration and collapse of the Roman Empire over the course of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., which caused a severe disruption of culture, its overwhelming influence reverberated throughout Europe for many centuries. Ruins of ancient buildings still existed, and coins and gems from the classical period were re-used in church vessels and bookbindings. Texts of ancient Greece and Rome still survive today because they were copied and re-copied by monks in medieval monasteries. Visitors to the exhibition will learn about the many ways in which medieval illuminators responded to the artistic heritage of ancient Greece and Rome, transforming figures of history, creatures of classical mythology, and forms of the classical world to the very different cultural context of the Middle Ages.

The griffin, a mythological beast that was a favorite motif in ancient art from about the third century B.C., is sometimes seen in medieval works. The Getty exhibition displays an ancient Greek bronze statuette of a griffin next to a page from the Ruskin Hours, an early medieval religious manuscript dating from around 1300. In the margin of the manuscript, a handsome griffin fends off the attack of a rearing unicorn, a beast of medieval mythology. During the Middle Ages these fabulous beasts took on multiple spiritual meanings, depending on their context in individual manuscripts. 

Also on display is a Greek drinking cup from about 510 B.C. with an image of a happy guest at a symposium (drinking party) playing a stringed instrument as he sings. The cup’s medieval counterpart, a 13th-century psalter (manuscript of the Biblical psalms), depicts the ancient Israelite king David as he sings and accompanies himself on a harp, emphasizing his role as author of the psalms. The ancient Greek subject of a man playing an instrument has fundamentally changed in the devotional book from a classical depiction of a social occasion filled with wine and song to a more sober medieval representation charged with deeply religious meaning. 

The birth of the illuminated manuscript was a phenomenon particularly associated with the rise of Christianity. But within these books, the artistic culture of antiquity was preserved and put to new uses. Medieval artists borrowed ancient motifs for their dazzling illuminated manuscripts, transforming them in the process in much the same way that many of today’s artists have a relationship with the art of the past. 

Related Events: All events are free and take place in the Harold M. Williams Auditorium, unless otherwise noted. Seating reservations are required. For reservations and information, please call 310-440-7300 or visit 

Lecture: Antiquity, Pseudo-Antiquity, and Anti-Antiquity in Medieval Art

Lawrence Nees, professor of art history, University of Delaware, discusses the complex and conflicted attitudes of medieval artists and patrons to the Greco-Roman artistic heritage. Artists sought not only to emulate or rival, but also to re-interpret, improve upon, or sometimes warn against the ancient tradition. Reservations available beginning August 26. Sunday September 28, 2003, 4 p.m.

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