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Getty Exhibition Looks Closely at the Fanciful Images in the Margins of Medieval Manuscripts
Unknown, Initial P: A Funeral Service, about 1320-1325. Temperacolors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment. 16.7 X 11.1 cm. 83.ML.98.99 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig IX 2, fol. 99
LOS ANGELES, CA. Battles, celebrations, and fantastic creatures found in the margins of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts are closely examined in Out-of-Bounds: Images in the Margins of Medieval Manuscripts. On view at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, September 1 through November 8, 2009, Out-of-Bounds explores the margins of medieval books and explains their wealth of subject matter: children playing games, romantic pursuits, men battling fantastic creatures, and composite figures—half-human, half-beast—that pervade the blank spaces of the margins or wend their ways through the sinuous foliage of the painted borders.

The great age of marginalia (Latin for “things in the margins”) took place during the Gothic period (1200s–1300s). Artists during this time took particular advantage of the blank spaces around the text to delight, amuse, and occasionally educate readers. Out-of-Bounds not only features examples of marginalia in the Gothic era but also traces the pre-history of marginal figures in inhabited initials of the early medieval manuscripts. The exhibition also explores the persistent presence of marginal motifs in the elaborate painted borders of late medieval manuscripts.

“Part of the genius of medieval art lies in its unique ability to combine serious and profound images with playful and witty ones,” says Kristen Collins, associate curator of manuscripts. “This exhibition looks closely at the marginal scenes found in medieval manuscripts that sometimes expand on the main narrative but also often poke fun at the lofty themes and, more broadly, at human foibles.”

Out-of-Bounds begins during the Ottonian and Romanesque periods (900s–1100s) where margins of manuscripts were often left sparely decorated. The blank margins were considered a luxurious aspect of the books since parchment was a prized commodity at the time. Instead, human, animal, and fantastic figures animated the large introductory letters of these manuscripts. These richly decorated initials set a precedent for including scenes of everyday life in the margins of later Gothic manuscripts.

Marginal images began to appear more abundantly during the Gothic period. In some cases, marginal scenes simply expanded or supplemented topics that were introduced by the manuscript’s primarily religious texts or illustrations. In other cases, the relationship is less obvious. An elaborate scenario involving a strongman, a dragon, and a bird might be inspired by a single phrase of a biblical text.

The exhibition concludes with manuscripts from the late medieval period. Illuminators of the 1400s and 1500s expanded on the marginal motifs from the earlier Gothic period by creating more elaborate and complex borders strewn with naturalistic foliage and abstract patterns. Artists during this period were more interested in experimenting with perspective and representations of the natural world.

Out-of-Bounds: Images in the Margins of Medieval Manuscripts is curated by Margot McIlwain Nishimura, independent scholar, and Kristen Collins, associate curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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