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Attention for works that shine

AT THE MUSEUMS

January 13, 2008|Hugh Hart

Like a sort of pious precursor to the graphic novel, illuminated manuscripts captivated readers' attention in the Middle Ages by combining words and pictures to spellbinding effect. They're perhaps even more striking now, a thousand years after monks began illustrating animal-hide prayer books with gold leaf and colored inks, as can be seen in the 25 samples at the Getty Center's "The Decorated Letter" exhibition, through Jan. 27.

"The words in these texts were lavished with the most incredible colors and gold because the artists wanted to adulate God," notes Elizabeth Morrison, associate curator of manuscripts. "And of course he deserves the best."

Monks crafted their illustrations with remarkably durable pigments, including red ink, made from crushed insect intestines; green powder, scraped from copper oxidized in vats of animal urine; and a blue derived from lapis lazuli.

"The colors are still very bright and seem to leap off the page," says Morrison, who points out that the works, drawn from the Getty's permanent collection, need to be displayed in low light to prevent fading. Literally illuminated by delicate gold trim, the show's manuscripts reflect a common visual vocabulary shared by the anonymous artisans who sometimes spent eight years completing a single book. Images of lush vegetation sprouting from foot-tall capital letters represent the bounty of God. Lambs symbolize Jesus. And that figure with human hands and an eagle's head peeking out from the letter "I" in a French Bible produced around 1170? That would be St. John.

"These symbols were very important," Morrison says, "In the Middle Ages, people who were illiterate and couldn't read Latin could look at these pictures and know immediately that this was the gospel of St. John."

Most museum-goers today don't know Latin either, but the ancient pages still fascinate book lovers of all ages, Morrison says. "We often find that children respond instantaneously to the manuscripts because they're used to seeing pictures with their texts. For them, it's sort of a natural concept."

-- Hugh Hart

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