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Getty Museum Exhibition Examines Dramatic, Symbolic Uses of Color in Medieval Manuscripts

Illuminating Color On View May 22 through August 26, 2001

November 20, 2000

Los Angeles--Color--one of the most essential and pleasurable components of human sight--was used in diverse and dramatic ways by manuscript illuminators over centuries. Illuminating Color, an exhibition on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum May 22 through August 26, 2001, examines how artists used color for symbolic purposes, as a way to organize images, and as an aid in creating three-dimensional illusions. It also investigates how color was determined by local traditions, the conventions of a certain type of book, or an artist's unique personality.

The 23 works on view were made in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Dating from around 1153 through 1530, the works include prayer books, religious service books, and history books. Created in England, France, Italy, Germany, Byzantium, and Armenia, these manuscripts were selected to demonstrate the variety of uses for color in book illumination.

"Color is as essential to a painter as words are to a poet," says Thomas Kren, the Getty Museum's curator of manuscripts. "It is a fundamental part of how an artist communicates to a viewer, whether conveying a symbolic message, telling a story, or creating the illusion of depth in a landscape. Manuscript illumination is particularly important for our historical understanding of color because it has been immaculately preserved inside books, providing some of the most vibrant and sumptuous examples of painting that are known to us."

One part of the exhibition explores symbolic meanings of color to a medieval audience. Lavish canon tables by the Armenian artist T'oros Roslin demonstrate color's power to lead the medieval viewer from the material toward the spiritual world. The diversity of hues--gold, green, blue, orange, pink--and patterns recall Byzantine architectural treatises that described the multicolored marbles and gold of churches as lifting the mind up to God.

Other sections of the exhibition are devoted to the ways manuscript illuminators used color to represent three-dimensional aspects of the body and landscape. In an initial L with The Baptism of Saint Augustine attributed to the Master of the Osservanza, the Italian artist models the robes of the two principal protagonists in contrasting hues: rose with green in one and green with yellow in the other. This was a vivacious alternative to modeling with value, or mixing white and black with a particular color to indicate the greatest and least areas of light.

The final section of the exhibition looks at the significance of gold, an important metallic pigment used in manuscript illumination. In a Byzantine Gospel book made in Constantinople, Saint Mark is shown against an abstract ground of gold leaf that shimmers and reflects light from different areas as the reader turns the page. This endows the scene with a mysterious, spiritual aura. In The Nativity by the French illuminator Jean Bourdichon, however, gold is used to represent not only divine presence, but also light itself. Rays of gold enter the stable from above and radiate from the Christ Child, illuminating the interior. In this miniature, gold has a spiritual meaning, but also acts as light does in the natural world.

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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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The J. Paul Getty Museum collects in seven distinct areas, including Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture, and decorative arts, and European and American photographs. The Museum's mission is to make the collection meaningful and attractive to a broad audience by presenting and interpreting the works of art through educational programs, special exhibitions, publications, conservation, and research.