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Getty Museum Exhibition Explores the Role of Gifts in the European Middle Ages

The Art of Giving in the Middle Ages
November 21, 2000 through February 4, 2001

August 2, 2000

Los Angeles--Through 20 illuminated manuscripts from the J. Paul Getty Museum's renowned collection, The Art of Giving in the Middle Ages explores the diverse meanings of gift giving in medieval and early modern society, many of which still hold sway today. On view at the Getty November 21, 2000 through February 4, 2001, the exhibition focuses on three themes: the models for giving found in scripture and the lives of the saints, the culture of giving in medieval society, and the gift of the book in the Middle Ages and beyond. The manuscripts on view include saints' lives, religious service books, histories, and devotional books originating in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire and dating from the 11th to the 16th century. Among the artists represented are Simon Bening, Gerard Horenbout, Simon Marmion, and Taddeo Crivelli.

"Gifts were an important part of the ceremony and diplomacy of medieval Europe," says Thomas Kren, the Museum's curator of manuscripts. "They were used to secure the allegiance of a ruler's subjects and to solidify ties among princes and high-ranking clergy. Medieval Christians gave money, land, or luxury goods to religious institutions in return for prayers on behalf of the donor's soul, and charity was considered a Christian virtue. Illuminated manuscripts were themselves among the most costly of gifts."

One group of works in the exhibition explores the models for giving found in scripture and the lives of the saints. The most important scriptural model was the presentation of gifts to the infant Jesus by three wise men. A miniature from a German psalter shows the wise men offering their gifts to the child before a shimmering gold background. Another miniature shows a model for charity taken from the life of the English saint Edward the Confessor: a ring he had given to a beggar is miraculously returned to him years later--a reward for his selflessness.

A second group of manuscripts reveals the culture of giving in this period. In the Middle Ages, charity took new forms as individuals, like Saint Hedwig of Silesia, displayed compassion for society's underprivileged by personally feeding the sick, giving alms, and helping the imprisoned. Not all gifts were charitable, though, as giving also played an important role in political affairs. Gifts were a critical feature of diplomatic protocol, demonstrating the donor's good will. Scholars also made gifts of their literary works to powerful princes in the hopes of future patronage. Vasco da Lucena, for example, dedicated his French translation of an ancient Roman biography of Alexander the Great to Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy--an act that simultaneously honored the ruler and elevated the status of the donor. In the Getty's deluxe illuminated copy of the text, Vasco is shown kneeling before the duke and presenting his work.

The final section of the installation focuses on the gift of the book in the Middle Ages and beyond. Illuminated manuscripts circulated among religious institutions both as diplomatic gifts and for the mutual benefit of monks and clerics. Books that served as gift objects are among the most sumptuously illuminated of the Middle Ages, and a number of service books and manuscripts of scripture that were created to be gifts to monasteries and high-ranking clerics are included in the exhibition. Outside the cloister, books were given on a variety of occasions. The illuminated prayer book known as the Gualenghi-d'Este Hours, for example, was made on the occasion of the marriage of Andrea Gualengo to Orsina d'Este, a member of the ruling family of the north Italian city of Ferrara. Even today, a medieval manuscript can mark an exchange of vows: the exhibition concludes with a 15th-century illuminated prayer book that the 20th-century American bibliophile Philip Hofer gave as an engagement present to his wife.

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About the Getty:

The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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