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Books Offer a Glimpse of Medieval Life : Art: The Getty exhibit of vividly colored illuminations, some dating from the 12th Century, depicts hunting, nature, jousting and chess.

August 02, 1990|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Think of illuminated manuscripts, and you think of monks piously bending their tonsures over religious texts.

But this summer, visitors to the J. Paul Getty Museum who can tear themselves away from Van Gogh's "Irises" can glimpse a very different kind of treasure: examples of illuminated manuscripts that deal not with religious concerns, but with such secular preoccupations as how to win when betting on a chess match.

Ranee Katzenstein, assistant curator of manuscripts, helped organize the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 30. A Harvard Ph.D. who wrote her dissertation on Venetian manuscripts, Katzenstein chose leaves from 18 illustrated books for the exhibit, the earliest dating from the 12th Century, the most recent a calligraphy manual from the 16th Century.

As Katzenstein points out, the majority of medieval books were religious in nature. But the Getty exhibit documents some of the more worldly interests of the people who made and bought books before and shortly after Gutenberg's invention of movable type in the 15th Century.

"You get a real sense of people from their books, especially if you can open their books and see what they've highlighted and underlined," Katzenstein said. Among the interests reflected in the hand-written and hand-illustrated books on exhibit: hunting, history, literature, the law, nature, jousting and chess.

The book of chess problems, dating from the late 1300s, is organized according to how many moves are required to win each game because it was the custom in northern France, where the book was produced, to bet on that number, Katzenstein said. The volume is called "Bonus socius," a reference to the author's description of himself in the introduction as "a good companion"--at least at the gaming table.

If the books consisted of nothing but text, they would be invaluable, but they are doubly so because they are illustrated. The small paintings that are part and parcel of the works are picture postcards from a world that no longer exists. As a result, she said, "we can see how the 14th Century played chess."

Thanks to the illustrations in a 12th-Century treatise on canon law, we can also see that medieval Frenchmen sometimes wore soft shoes with filigree designs and pointed toes. From the painting of a pair of elephants in a 13th-Century French bestiary, we can be fairly certain the artist never saw one in the flesh--the fanciful pachyderms look like black haystacks with trunks.

To protect the manuscripts, whose colors are more vivid than most old movies, the lights in the exhibit hall are kept low.

"Some of the best preserved medieval paintings are in books because they were kept closed," she said. Like their religious counterparts, many of the secular manuscripts gleam with gold leaf or paint. Some also feature ultramarine blue, a pigment made by crushing lapis lazuli, which was as costly as gold. All but one of the books shown was written on vellum, parchment made from animal skin. Because of its beauty and durability, vellum remained popular for lavish literary productions even after paper became widely available in Europe in the 14th Century.

The illustrations vary enormously in sophistication. Some are almost cartoon-like. A 13th-Century creature with an animal's head and human legs looks like a Maurice Sendak beast in "Where the Wild Things Are." In some paintings, people and objects are as flat as in the tapestries that were being produced in the same period.

Some of the illuminations are extraordinarily beautiful. Among the most exquisite are the watercolors of flowers, insects, animals, nuts--even a cooked lobster--that Georg Hoefnagel did in the late 16th Century for a model book of calligraphy by Georg Bocskay.

According to Katzenstein, Hoefnagel was a pivotal figure in Netherlandish art--the last great Flemish illuminator and one of the first and most influential artists in the emerging field of still-life easel painting. The manuscript, a superb work of calligraphy illuminated with genius, "is one of our treasures," Katzenstein said.

Also hauntingly beautiful is the view of soldiers marching into a city at night, painted by an artist known as the Master of the White Initials in a copy of Jean Froissart's "Chroniques." The book was made in Bruges at the end of the 15th Century, probably for King Edward IV of England, when that Flemish city was a major artistic center.

According to Katzenstein, the powerful often commissioned and collected books that glorified the deeds of their ancestors, and the Froissart includes a lengthy account of the exploits of Edward's Plantagenet ancestor Richard II.

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