The concept of history in the Middle Ages was not what it is today, as visitors to the J. Paul Getty Museum's new exhibition of manuscripts will see. In an eye-popping image from "Romance of Alexander," a book made in the 1290s, an unknown artist illustrated a yarn about Alexander the Great making an underwater expedition. Enthroned in a glass diving bell, below a whale that gobbles up much of the pictorial space, the regal explorer calmly observes a colony of nude people, earthly beasts and fruit trees living at the bottom of the sea.
"The artist really had fun with this," says Getty curator Elizabeth Morrison, who organized the exhibition with Anne D. Hedeman, an art history professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana- Champaign. "It's a fanciful representation of history, but in medieval times there were accounts of Alexander going to India and Asia with elephants. It was all mixed in and taken as part of history." In another flight of fancy, an encyclopedia of the Middle Ages depicts Asia as the home of an earthly paradise with jeweled gold mountains, protected by griffins, dragons and blue elephants.
Forget about musty old history books crammed with tiresome facts. The ingenious artists who illuminated the manuscripts in "Imagining the Past in France, 1250-1500," opening Tuesday at the J. Paul Getty Museum, were in the business of bringing history to life. As illustrators of a rich mix of historical documents, Christian literature, legends and myths, they told stories in dazzling pictures for the delectation and edification of the ruling class in medieval France.
"The manuscripts had a specific function at court," Morrison says. "Like movies today about Alexander the Great, King Arthur, the Trojan War or the Crusades, they were meant to teach, entertain and overwhelm the senses as they celebrated exciting narratives."
Like devotional and liturgical illuminations produced in monasteries, the works are highly detailed compositions in vivid tempera colors and gold on parchment. But they were produced by an urban book trade that responded to a demand for vernacular manuscripts. Often larger than traditional religious books, the secular manuscripts are inventive visual interpretations of stories written in French or translated from Latin for an increasingly literate audience.
Eight years in the making, the exhibition is the museum's latest effort to bring extraordinary manuscripts to Los Angeles from repositories around the world. "Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe," in 2003, was followed by "A Masterpiece Reconstructed: The Hours of Louis XII" in 2005, "Holy Space, Hallowed Ground: Icons From Sinai" in 2006 and "The Belles Heures of the Duke of Berry" in 2008.
For "Imagining the Past," on view only at the Getty, the curators have selected nearly 80 illuminated manuscripts and related objects of ivory, tapestry and metal from 29 museums and libraries across the United States and Europe. The show is an opportunity for the public to see works usually available only to scholars and rarely, if ever, allowed to travel.
"This is the crème de la crème," Morrison says. "We have been able to gather in one place the greatest French history manuscripts created in the Middle Ages."
Some of the narratives may be the stuff of fairy tales, but taking liberties with history to inspire action, validate power or establish moral principles is an enduring practice. In the heat of political campaigns or social unrest, public figures often model themselves after heroes of yore. This fall in Paris, a fascinating little show tucked away in the basement of a medieval tower named for Jean the Fearless, a Burgundian duke, explored the resilience of medieval themes in comic strips created as teaching tools.
The manuscripts at the Getty interpret history for a medieval audience. People are depicted in the sort of attire worn by those who commissioned the books, not historical characters. And the messages often serve a serious purpose, such as reinforcing the divine right of human governance. A 35-foot-long scroll, about half of which will be displayed in a purpose-built case, starts with the Christian notion of creation and ends with a French king. Here, Morrison says, is "a sense of linear, pre-ordained history that goes directly from God's mouth to the French monarchy."
A prime piece from the Getty Museum's collection, "Concerning the Fates of Illustrious Men and Women" by Giovanni Boccaccio, contains a rare — possibly unique — image of Adam and Eve in their final years painted by an artist known as the Boucicaut Master.