Medieval Manuscript Exhibition to Open at the J. Paul Getty Museum

Have you ever wanted to learn how manuscripts were made? Who were the scribes and artists behind the illuminated pages? In The Medieval Scriptorium children – and adults – can answer those questions for themselves as they learn what it was like to be a manuscript illuminator in a medieval workshop.

On view at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, November 24, 2009 – February 14, 2010, The Medieval Scriptorium looks closely at the inner workings of a scriptorium, exploring the way books were physically made, the artistic decisions made by the illuminators and scribes, and how manuscripts were understood and used by the people and cultures that produced them. The exhibition installation will offer a number of kid-friendly activities and wall text to appeal to children and their parents.

Virgin and ChildA scriptorium (Latin word meaning “place for writing”) during the medieval period was a place where books were written and illuminated. In the days before technology made it possible to print many copies of a book, scribes and artists made each book by hand. This exhibition encourages children to participate in the work of a medieval illuminator and design their own manuscript page. A central drawing station will be the centerpiece of the exhibition and a place where children can learn through drawing activities how books were copied and illuminated. The station includes instructions and materials for children to design their own manuscript page.

The Medieval Scriptorium also includes a section about copying versus invention that explores the ways that copyists broke from their models to create new kinds of pictures. Since manuscripts often told the same stories, artists tended to copy the illustrations for those stories from one book to another with few changes. However, since the borders of a page were mostly for decoration, artists expressed their individuality in these spaces and painted them with decorations like fanciful creatures or delectable looking fruits. This section also highlights how artists invented new compositions that had specific purposes such as illustrative, didactic, and decorative.

The final section of the exhibition presents manuscripts from different parts of the world and invites visitors to compare illustrations. Even though manuscripts were created thousands of miles and several hundred years apart, artists’ illustrations often had many similarities, suggesting that even with great distances and limited modes of transportation, books traveled around the world and influenced artists. Manuscripts on display in this section include the Getty Museum ’s recently acquired Ethiopian Gospel book as well as Armenian and Greek Gospel books and a Koran.

“First and foremost we wanted young people to appreciate the art. The drawing activity teaches them about the work of a medieval scriptorium but it also requires them to actively engage with the manuscripts that will be on display,” says Kristen Collins, associate curator of manuscripts and co-curator of the exhibition.

Maite Alvarez, education project specialist and co-curator of the exhibition, adds, “This kid-friendly exhibition will encourage children and their families to enter into the medieval world and participate in activities that are both educational as well as entertaining.”

Image: Unknown, The Virgin and Child with the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, about 1504 – 1505. Tempera on parchment. 2008.15.19v. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 102, fol. 19v