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Illuminating Medieval Art

November 18, 2001|REED JOHNSON

Like astronauts and four-star chefs, medieval manuscript curators are a select bunch. Thomas Kren, the Getty Museum's manuscript curator, says his love of medieval art's shimmering illustrated books owes much to the strong manuscript cache at the Cleveland Museum of Art in his hometown. Kren, 51, joined the Getty's paintings department in 1980, becoming curator of the manuscript department in 1984. A new exhibit, "The Armenian Gospels of Gladzor," (through Dec. 2) showcases a rare 14th century illumination famed for its brilliantly colored miniatures. We spoke with Kren about his metier.

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What is an illuminated manuscript, anyway?

An illuminated manuscript is first and foremost a handmade and handwritten book. In the European tradition, the printed book only comes into fashion in the 1450s. Up to that point all books were on parchment--written, painted and decorated by hand. Much great art of the Middle Ages was portable.

Which is good if the Crusades happen to be sacking your city.

Exactly.

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Were they always made by monks?

The vast majority of what we have from medieval art is Christian. In the early Middle Ages, most illuminated manuscripts were produced by monks. In the high Middle Ages, [without being] a monk, you could develop a specialty as a scribe, or an illuminator, or a seller of manuscripts.

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Were illuminators seen as "artists"?

The status of the artist was definitely different. The notion of the artist as genius was not forged really until the Renaissance. An artist could gain a certain prominence, but he was viewed more as a craftsman until the Renaissance.

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Is such craft-heavy work relevant for today's art?

I was just in London and there was a fabulous show by Bill Viola, the [L.A.-based] video artist. He's interested in the transition from the later Middle Ages to the Renaissance. He's doing small-scale videos of heads, even of Passion subject matter. It's a different medium, but there is an equal level of craft. So that perhaps is evidence that great craft remains very important for great art.

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What other manuscript shows have you got coming up?

We have a show coming on the theme of violence in the Middle Ages. I think people will be quite shocked to find the level of acceptance of violence as part of people's lives. It provides a very interesting perspective on issues today.

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What drew you to this art form?

I like things that are small in scale, and I like the intimacy. This may be a little eccentric, [but] when I was in the [Getty's] paintings department, I promoted the purchase of a tiny oil by Frans van Mieris, a great Dutch painter. It's like 6 inches tall. The other thing is that since most books are closed most of the time, illuminated manuscripts tend to look the way they did when the artist laid down his brush.

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Is it true that you don't own a microwave?

I don't, actually. Or a dishwasher. That's going to make me seem medieval. I like to think that I'm not a Luddite, but I try not to own things that break easily.

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