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'Out of Bounds: Images in the Margins of Medieval Manuscripts' at the Getty Center

One never knows what one might find in the margins of medieval manuscripts.

October 04, 2009|Susan Emerling

A blue-hooded jester sticks his fingers in his mouth and pulls his lips wide to reveal a broad, toothy sneer. "You, my dear reader, are a fool," he seems to say. "And I know a fool when I see one."

This irreverent illustration is stuck in the lower margin of a page dedicated to Psalm 52 in a medieval psalter wherein a fool pronounces, "There is no God." The first letter of the passage -- a "D" inhabited by an illustration of Christ being dogged by a fool in a mask -- updates the Old Testament psalm to a New Testament meaning, but this special illumination seems reserved as a cautionary note to the reader. "Just because one reads the scripture," it seems to say, "one is not exempt from foolishness."

This playful appeal from the illuminator directly to the reader is the surprising revelation of "Out of Bounds: Images in the Margins of Medieval Manuscripts," a small -- one could say marginal -- show at the Getty Center that focuses on the collateral delights of some of the world's loveliest religious tomes and the ways in which medieval manuscript illuminators tucked a surprising level of jest into their holy work.

Kristen Collins, who curated the show with independent scholar Margot McIlwain Nishimura, says, "Part of the genius of medieval art lies in its unique ability to combine serious and profound images with playful and witty ones." Nishimura, writing in a small, general audience book that accompanies the exhibition, sees the witty depictions as the New Yorker cartoons of their day. The show runs until Nov. 8.

The oldest manuscript in the show, a sacramentary dating from the early 11th century and attributed to Nivardus of Milan, is open to a nearly full-page illustration in which two boys scale a pair of columns that provide architectural structure to the central design of elaborate gold knot work. They are foisting themselves into the leafy gold vines, which are entwined above their heads. The figure on the right appears ready to vault himself out of the illumination and into the wide empty border surrounding it, while the figure on the left hangs on to the branches for dear life.

It is a madcap scene of real people wrangling an imaginary setting. In the context of this exhibition, it is also a metaphor for the transformation that takes place in medieval manuscript illumination over four centuries, when illuminators began to push decorative elements out from the text and into the broad untouched margins that were a sign of luxury in an era when the quality of a book was measured in part by the amount of parchment used to create it.

By the late middle ages, the margins of these books would be densely organized into rectilinear fields that were filled to overflowing with decorative flourishes, flora and fauna, and illuminated scenes, providing entertainment to the aristocrats and royals as they piously pondered their pricey books of hours. "These were devotional objects," says Collins, "but they had materiality and worth as luxury items. If you were going to sit and read Paul's epistles, why not have it covered in gold?"

Whereas the primary illuminations were often illustrations of the text or scenes from the lives of saints, quite often the margins were filled with whimsies, such as a donkey playing a lyre or hybrid beasts with human heads and animal torsos engaged in bawdy or irreverent acts. Animals -- real, imagined and symbolic -- also abound, sometimes in hunt scenes or in allegorical depictions.

The tradition of depicting children at play is in evidence along the bottom edge of a an early 14th century breviary, which shows a group of boys engaged in a game called hot cockles. One child hides his head beneath a woman's skirt while his companions torment him until he can identify his assailant. In a missal from the late 14th century, the border is a hide-and-seek of children frolicking on hobbyhorses while carrying pinwheels and a diver with a weight on his back looks for pearls.

Gore and torture are the subjects of a wide array of blatantly gruesome images, including one that appears at the bottom of a page in the 14th century "Ruskin Hours of Herod Ordering the Massacre of the Innocents." The initial "D" that begins the passage is inhabited by a scene of one of Herod's knights receiving his orders. In the lower margin, the illuminator shows unambiguously what it might have looked like when he carried out his task.

A French book of hours from around 1420 is open to a page organized around a central illumination of St. Catherine being tended by angels after being tortured for refusing to renounce Christ. The border is filled with scenes from her life, including a blood-spurting depiction of a poor soul being hacked to death by the eponymous Catherine wheel. His feet are violently knocked outside the frame as blood spurts from his head. It is these dense scenes, loaded with hidden images, that keep the noses of Getty visitors pressed to the glass of the display cases.


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