New Exhibition at the Getty Explores Books and Reading
Artful Reading in Medieval and Renaissance Europe
December 18, 2001 - March 10, 2002 at the Getty Museum
November 30, 2001
Los Angeles--Beginning on December 18, the J. Paul Getty Museum presents Artful Reading in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, an installation of works of art drawn principally from the permanent collection that explores the phenomenon of reading in the Middle Ages and the early modern period--and its differences from contemporary reading practices--through 15 illuminated manuscripts, three early printed books, an ancient papyrus scroll, a 20th-century photograph, and an electronic book. In addition to examining both the symbolism of the book and reading in the Middle Ages, the exhibition charts the major technological changes that have influenced the way the written word has been communicated over time.
"In the Middle Ages, as now, reading opened windows onto worlds of information, entertainment, and inspiration," says Thomas Kren, the Getty Museum's curator of manuscripts. "The concept of books, the texts that were read, and the conditions for reading them, however, were vastly different from ours. This exhibition explores those differences, as well as the importance of the written word and the practice of reading aloud."
In the Middle Ages, the very image of a book could serve as a powerful visual symbol of the divine. Indeed, biblical passages such as John 1:14, "And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us," highlight the inseparable link between Christ and the Word. This concept is rendered pictorially in a miniature included in the exhibition that shows Christ holding a closed book as he sits enthroned in majesty at the end of time.
The subject of learning to read in the Middle Ages is also examined in one section of the exhibition. Medieval mothers provided their children with a basic education, often teaching them their ABCs from books of hours, which contain prayers to be recited throughout the day, and psalters (compilations of the Psalms). A representation of Saint Anne teaching the young Virgin Mary to read, included in the exhibition, reflects this medieval practice.
"Perhaps the most marked difference between modern and medieval reading practices was the prevalence of reading aloud in the Middle Ages," Kren notes. "Silent reading was uncommon, and reading was usually a collective experience. Historical chronicles and vernacular romances were read aloud at princely courts, and biblical passages were recited during church services."
The exhibition concludes with a brief survey of the technology of reading, from the papyrus scroll of antiquity to the digitized books of the 21st century. Visitors to the exhibition will see the important position occupied by the manuscript book within this evolving technology; it offered significant improvements over the papyrus scroll it replaced, being both more durable and easier to use. It also served as the vehicle for the splendid art of manuscript illumination, the medium for most of the exhibition's images of medieval readers and their books.
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