Museum Home Past Exhibitions Music for the Masses: Illuminated Choir Books

August 14–October 28, 2007 at the Getty Center

Initial A: A Man Singing
Initial A: A Man Singing (detail) from a gradual, northern Italian, about 1460–1480
audio Hear a vocalist perform the music written on this page.

Books containing music for Christian church ceremonies are among the largest and most beautiful manuscripts that have survived from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This exhibition explores the splendid decoration of these manuscripts and the significance of music in medieval religious life.

The most lavish choir books are illuminated with biblical and allegorical scenes and even representations of the act of singing, as in this Initial A. Within the letter, a man shown in profile sings from an open book containing a chant and musical notation written on red staves. The illuminator depicted the sound of the singer's voice in the form of fine gold vines that emerge from his open mouth.

Initial A / M Gerona
Initial A: Christ in Majesty from an antiphonal, Master of Gerona, late 1200s
audio Hear a vocal ensemble perform the music written on this page.

The Books of Song

In monasteries and churches, musical chants were performed regularly during Christian liturgical ceremonies. Chants were a fundamental part of the mass (the public ceremony in which bread and wine are blessed and consumed) and the divine office (the prayer services celebrated by monks and nuns at eight specific times throughout the day).

This page from an antiphonal, a type of choir book used in the divine office, shows Christ enthroned in heaven surrounded by adoring angels. The prophet Isaiah gazes up at him from the base of the A. The chant that this letter introduces, "Behold from afar I see the coming power of God," is based on one of Isaiah's prophecies. It is sung on the first Sunday in Advent, a period of preparation for Christmas.

Learn about the four types of music books used in Christian ceremonies.

Initial R: The Resurrection from a gradual, Antonio da Monza, late 1400s or early 1500s
audio Hear a vocal ensemble perform the music written on this page.
learn_more See a close-up of Christ rising from his tomb.

The Life of Christ

In the most lavishly decorated choir books, illuminators enlarged the first letter of each hymn and filled it with an elaborate image inspired by the song's text.

The major events of Christ's life, from his infancy to his death, were especially popular themes for these scenes.

This initial from a splendid Italian gradual depicts Christ rising triumphantly from his tomb on Easter Sunday, the day when the chant written on this page was sung.

Initial E: Saint Jerome in His Study / Italian
Initial E: Saint Jerome in His Study from a choir book, attributed to the Master of the Birago Hours, about 1470–1480

The Lives of the Saints

Medieval Christians regarded the saints as important role models and often appealed to them for help and spiritual guidance. Each holy man and woman was honored on a specific day of the year, when choirs would sing songs celebrating the saint's life.

This Initial E, which once began a chant sung on Saint Jerome's feast day, shows the saint surrounded by medieval writing tools, composing one of the many theological treatises for which he was well known.

Initial T / dei Russi
Initial T: Isaac and Esau from an antiphonal, attributed to Franco dei Russi, about 1455–1460/63
audio Hear a vocalist perform the music written on this page.
learn_more See a close-up of Isaac and Esau.

Old Testament and Allegorical Themes

Some decorative initials in choir books illustrate stories from the Hebrew Bible.

The Initial T shown here depicts the elderly patriarch Isaac sending his son, Esau, to hunt for venison so that Isaac may give Esau his final blessing when he returns with the meal. This story and the chant on this page are read and sung during Lent.

This type of iconography echoes the Old Testament source of many medieval chants, the majority of which were drawn from the poetic texts found in the book of Psalms.

Inhabited Initial B / German
Inhabited Initial B from the Stammheim Missal, German, about 1170s
audio Hear a vocalist perform the music written on this page.

Writing and Transcribing Music

In the 800s, European monks began to transcribe songs using a form of musical notation known as neumes, which are shown here above each line of text alongside an Initial B from the Stammheim Missal.

Rather than representing specific notes to be sung, these rising and falling dots and lines indicated the movement of the singer's voice between higher and lower pitches, reminding them of a melody that they had already memorized.

As chants became more elaborate, the abstract neume system was replaced by small squares written along a horizontal, four-line staff that assigned a specific pitch to each note to indicate a distinct tune. This square notation later gave birth to our modern round musical notes on a five-line staff.

See examples of neumes and square notation and hear the chants they represent.

Initial C / Italian
Initial C: Monks Singing from a breviary, northeastern Italian, about 1420
learn_more See a close-up of the singing monks.

Musical Performance and Devotion

Along with spoken prayer, music was an important means through which medieval Christians expressed their devotion to God.

Most music in church ceremonies was sung by a choir, as shown here on a page from an Italian missal. It depicts the celebration of the mass, with a choir of monks, at left, crowding together to sing from a book on a lectern.

Such scenes offer rare glimpses into how these manuscripts were used in churches and monasteries.