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Getty Adds Medieval Illuminated Work

Art: The Stammheim Missal, considered 'a world-class, first-rate acquisition,' tells biblical stories. The price is undisclosed.

April 25, 1997|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

Making its most important acquisition of an illuminated manuscript since launching its renowned manuscripts collection 14 years ago, the J. Paul Getty Museum has purchased the Stammheim Missal, a 12th century German artwork that illustrates biblical stories in sparkling detail and brilliant color. Acquired at an undisclosed price, the manuscript is well known to scholars as a monument of Romanesque art and had been one of the finest works of medieval art in private hands.

"In the field of medieval manuscripts this is absolutely a world-class, first-rate acquisition," said James Marrow, a professor of art history at Princeton University who specializes in medieval manuscripts.

"In terms of quality, artistry and iconography--by which I mean surprising imagery--it can't be bested. And it's in pristine condition. Among Romanesque manuscripts, the only thing that can stand with it is the Berthold Missal in the [Pierpont] Morgan Library," he said, referring to a highly revered work in the nation's premier collection of manuscripts, in New York.

Thomas Kren, the Getty's curator of manuscripts, called the new acquisition "one of the great creations of the Romanesque period," which flourished from the middle of the 11th century to the end of the 12th century. "There was a revival of learning at the time," he said. "It was a great period of medieval scholarship and thought. This book reflects that in strong, lucid images."

The artwork will go on view in December at the new Getty Center as the centerpiece in one of two inaugural exhibits of manuscripts, Kren said.

Adopting the epic quality of great narrative cycles seen in the stained glass windows of medieval cathedrals--but in small scale--the 368-page manuscript tells stories from the creation to the crucifixion of Christ. It contains a dozen full-page illustrations and 47 large decorated letters of the alphabet, executed in bright tempera paint and burnished gold and silver leaf on parchment.

Characterized by symmetrical compositions, geometric shapes and compartmentalized vignettes containing biblical figures, the miniatures deliver a spiritual message that shows the wisdom of God, presented as a divine plan. In addition, one page depicts St. Bernward of Hildesheim, a patron of the arts who is thought to have commissioned the manuscript, as well as a likeness of the Monk Henry of Midel, who may be its illuminator.

Missals are liturgical books containing all the prayers and rites used by priests to celebrate the Mass throughout the year. The Stammheim Missal was created around 1160 for the Benedictine Abbey of St. Michael's at Hildesheim, and it remained there until the secularization of the monasteries at the beginning of the 19th century.

The manuscript is named for the Stammheim branch of the noble German family Furstenberg, who acquired it then and kept it in the family until the Getty purchased it. The artwork is in remarkably fine condition because the pages have been bound together as a book that has only been in two collections for more than 800 years, Kren said.

The Stammheim Missal joins a collection of 287 illuminated manuscripts founded in 1983 with the Getty's purchase of 144 artworks from the collection of Irene and Peter Ludwig of Aachen, Germany. The museum entered the field late, but it has compiled a high-quality collection of manuscripts that has provided resources for an active exhibition program.

At the turn of the century, when J.P. Morgan and other wealthy collectors bought manuscripts, they were available and relatively affordable, Marrow said. "Now the supply is infinitesimally small and the cost is astronomically large." The Stammheim Missal "had to be very expensive," he said. "But whatever they paid, with the passage of time, the Getty will seem prescient."

Kren said he had been trying to buy the Stammheim Missal for nearly 10 years, but had to wait until the family was ready to sell it. The work was legally exported by the family from Germany in 1988, and has been in the United States since 1995.

"There are so few great things left to buy," Kren said. "Adding this manuscript to our collection is really thrilling."

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