Prayer, both personal and communal, was an integral aspect of life in Europe during the Middle Ages. The readings, rites, and prayers contained in medieval Christian devotional books were often accompanied by lavish decorations that were key in both fostering and expressing the religious zeal of the faithful. Drawn primarily from the Getty Museum’s permanent collection, The Art of Devotion in the Middle Ages, on display August 28, 2012–February 3, 2013, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, features elaborately illuminated books executed in precious pigments and gold. These prayer books not only played an important role in everyday worship, but also served as material testaments to the piety of the books’ owners.
“Christians in the Middle Ages often celebrated their beliefs with lavishly illuminated devotional books,”explains Elizabeth Morrison, acting senior curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Full-page images and page borders brimming with fantastic figures and scenes focused attention on important texts and rites.”
The exhibition focuses on three aspects of religious life: public devotion, private devotion, and devotional literature.
Although early Christian ceremonies were very simple, over the course of the Middle Ages they gradually transformed into a series of complicated rites and performances. The books used in the liturgy (communal worship services) of the Christian Church often received decorative treatment that created a sense of majesty and luxury. The books produced for these public ceremonies became more elaborate in their presentation, both to emphasize the religious importance of the texts and to symbolize the wealth and power of the Church.
Some manuscripts, such as Bibles and missals, were placed on the altar during services, while others, such as music manuscripts, were positioned on a lectern so that multiple participants could see the book at once. In Initial S: The Massacre of the Innocents, from a Bolognese antiphonal of the late 1200s, Herod sits at the left, giving the order for the massacre of all male children under the age of two, while a soldier at right holds an infant upside-down by the leg, preparing to use his sword. This dramatic choir book initial accompanies the chants for the feast of the Holy Innocents. An antiphonal contains the music sung during the Divine Office, the eight prayer services celebrated daily by monks, nuns, and clerics of the Catholic Church, and this manuscript, almost two feet tall, was originally part of an impressive seven-volume set. The book’s large size would have made it usable by a group of singers.
Throughout the Middle Ages, men and women celebrated their religious beliefs not only during Church services, but also with the aid of small personal prayer books that were beautifully written and illuminated. On a daily basis, monks, nuns, and members of the clergy recited the cycle of prayers known as the Divine Office, which pious Christians outside the Church increasingly sought to imitate. Breviaries (containing the texts of the Divine Office), psalters (containing all 150 Biblical psalms), and books of hours (originally an abbreviated form of the breviary developed for laypeople), all designed for private use, were acquired by those who could afford such luxuries. These books sometimes contained dozens or even hundreds of finely illuminated pages, and could be individualized with images of favorite saints or feasts that reflected the traits of a specific region or the wishes of a particular patron.
The exhibition includes several richly illustrated private devotional texts, including The Annunciation to the Shepherds (about 1480–90), from a book of hours by Georges Trubert (French, active 1469–1508), which features two humble shepherds who look up in astonishment and awe as an angel comes to them to announce the birth of Christ. The illusionistic jeweled frame surrounding the scene imitates those found on contemporary panel paintings, elevating the page to the status of a private devotional artwork.
A large variety of texts were written and illuminated to inspire piety and contemplation among medieval Christians. Religious reading was an integral part of the daily routine of monks and nuns, while the increasing desire for a personal connection with Christ and the Virgin Mary ensured growth in the production of devotional tracts. The Bible and the writings of early Christian theologians were primary sources for devotional reading. Works detailing the lives of Christ and Mary, who were considered models of behavior, gave rise to pictures of events not recorded in the Bible, and the illustrated stories of the saints—full of entertaining narratives—found popularity among all segments of the Christian population.
In Matteo di ser Cambio’s Saint Bernard Reading (about 1375), the saint reads in solitude, deeply engrossed in the small book in his hands. The image adorns a text exploring man’s inner relationship with God that was ascribed during the Middle Ages to Saint Bernard, who was famed for his rejection of worldly temptations in favor of simplicity and quiet contemplation. Appropriately for the text, in which Bernard explores his own spirituality, the author is not shown in the act of writing, but lost in study.
“What’s fascinating about devotional texts of the Middle Ages is the variety of decoration that they could inspire, from narrative scenes set against shimmering gold backgrounds to playful border decorations featuring charming animals and lush vegetation,” adds Morrison. “From piety came innovative works of art that inspired and elevated readers, whether they were taking part in a church service, praying privately at home, or studying a particular aspect of Christianity.”
The Art of Devotion in the Middle Ages is curated by Elizabeth Morrison, acting senior curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum.