Museum Home Past Exhibitions Songs of Praise: Illuminated Choir Books

July 23–October 13, 2002 at the Getty Center

Splendidly illuminated choir books stood open in churches throughout the High Middle Ages and Renaissance (roughly 1100–1500). These volumes are impressively large because they needed to be seen by groups of singers during the church service.

The painted letters in these books marked the first musically elaborate chant of a feast day. The subject represented within a letter is inspired by the event commemorated on that day or by the text of the chant it introduces. Thus the initials serve as both illustration and bookmark.

Twenty-one books, leaves, and cuttings from the Getty's collection explore the various sorts of choir books, their decoration, and medieval music notation.

Christ in Majesty / M Gerona
Initial A: Christ in Majesty


Antiphonals contain the musical portions of the eight prayer services celebrated daily in the Middle Ages by monks, nuns, and clerics.

This A begins a chant sung during Advent, the period just before Christmas. Christ of the Second Coming sits on a heavenly throne, while the prophet Isaiah gazes up at him. The words of the chant proclaim Isaiah's prophecy: "Behold from afar I see the coming power of God."

Initial C: Monks Singing / Unknown
Initial C: Monks Singing


The breviary is the book that contains all the texts, sung and spoken, of the Divine Office (the prayer liturgy of the Catholic Church, which is focused on the recitation of Psalms and the reading of lessons). In the Middle Ages, the daily celebration of the Office occupied much of the waking day of monks and nuns.

The scene in this letter C offers a glimpse of how choir books were used in medieval religious services.

Initial R / Antonio da Monza
Initial R: The Resurrection
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The chants of the Mass—the Christian rite in which bread and wine are consecrated and consumed—are found in the gradual, so called after a chant by the same name performed on the steps (gradus in Latin) leading to the altar.

This initial R depicts the Resurrection, and introduces the chants for Easter (the annual commemoration of Christ's resurrection from the dead).

Inhabited Initial B / Unknown
Inhabited Initial B
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Missals contain the prayers said by the priest and the chants sung by the choir at Mass, sometimes with and sometimes without musical notation.

Medieval music notation is composed of neumes (probably from the Greek for "gesture") that appear above the words. In this manuscript, the neumes indicate the number of notes and the contour, but not the exact pitches, of the melody. Each neume (or series of neumes) corresponds to one syllable of text, and reminded the singers of melodies they already knew by heart.