Images of Violence in the Medieval World
At the Getty Center, December 21, 2004–March 13, 2005
November 10, 2004
Los Angeles—In contemporary society, violence is viewed in a largely negative light, but in medieval Europe, it was seen as an integral, even necessary, part of everyday life. The new exhibition Images of Violence in the Medieval World, at the Getty Center from December 21, 2004–March 13, 2005, examines the culture of violence and its influence and effects on daily, religious, and political life in medieval society.
In the Middle Ages, images of the tortured Christ were objects for devotional contemplation, fierce tournaments provided entertainment for enthralled spectators, and brutal wars were waged to define national boundaries and issues. The exhibition explores this pervasive culture of violence as depicted in a variety of medieval texts, ranging from saints' lives and prayer books to romances and histories. The vivid and graphic nature of the works reinforced their purpose as moral lessons or inspirational tales. Approximately 18 manuscripts and leaves drawn from the Getty's collection will be on view to offer insight into three aspects of violence in the medieval world: violence in everyday life, violence in the world of religion, and violence in the name of the state.
At a time when even the barest necessities were often scarce, plunder and oppression were common and violence was a deeply rooted aspect of daily life. Family feuds and disputes were often settled on the side of the strongest and fiercest contender. In a world where strength was widely accepted and even respected, violence also played a major role in more unexpected spheres, such as education and entertainment. Boys were trained from a young age to be successful warriors, and later participated in such events as jousting matches to prove their worth. The exhibition includes a manual on fighting techniques that might have been useful in the education of young noblemen. Illustrations show in detail combat on foot with sword, dagger, and ax, and also mounted attack positions. Other manuscripts depict more common forms of everyday violence. In Romance of the Rose (about 1405), an immensely popular medieval text, an argument against domestic violence is illustrated with a picture of a man hitting his wife with a stick.
In religious life, suffering was seen as necessary to salvation in the Christian worldview. The account of the torture and death of Christ was one of the most familiar of all stories to those living in the Middle Ages. Constant reminders were offered in the form of vivid images of the Crucifixion, scenes of flagellation, and tales of martyrdom. In the Prayer Book of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (about 1525–30), certain texts and images emphasize Christ’s physical pain. The book includes a graphic image of Christ being whipped as blood flows from hundreds of gashes down his wounded body, encouraging the viewer to empathize with His plight. In another work, Saint Sebastian is shown being martyred, with his arms tied behind his back and his body riddled by arrows. Violence is also the chief characteristic of imagery associated with hell, a place filled with endless physical tortures and horrific creatures devouring hapless souls.
Politics in the Middle Ages was permeated with conflict and wars that shaped a substantial part of European history. Centuries of invasions and political instability in early medieval Europe were replaced by the increasingly powerful kings of the later Middle Ages, who often strove to increase their territories through the use of sheer force. Many European states began to take on their modern forms, with nation-defining issues frequently decided on the battlefield. Manuscripts in the exhibition are filled with frenzied battle scenes. Another common theme explored is the violent power struggles between members of ruling families. A letter written by the courtier Eneas Silvius Piccolomini (illuminated about 1460–1470) describing court life in stark terms is illustrated with multiple gruesome scenes: a man kneels to be blindfolded and executed near a heap of freshly beheaded corpses, another man is about to be drowned, while in the background, armed men observe an unfortunate soul hanging from the gallows.
Jan. 21, 6:00 and 7:30 p.m., Museum galleries
Artist Tom Knechtel, whose work looks like a cross between Hieronymus Bosch and Beatrix Potter—paintings and drawings of animals, men, and various combinations of the two cavorting in cities and theatres—discusses the exhibition Images of Violence in the Medieval World. Sign up at the Museum Information Desk beginning at 4:30 p.m. the day of the program.
Curator's Gallery Talk
Jan. 21 and Feb. 15, 1:30 p.m., Museum galleries
Elizabeth Morrison, associate curator of manuscripts, gives a one-hour talk on the exhibition Images of Violence in the Medieval World. Meet under the stairs in the Museum Entrance Hall.
Savage Cinema: The Violent Poetry of War on Film
Feb. 4, 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 5, 3:00 and 7:00 p.m., Harold M. Williams Auditorium
Three films selected by L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan explore cinematic portrayals of violence in war from the Middle Ages to the modern world. Complements the exhibition Images of Violence in the Medieval World. Reservations available Jan. 20, 9:00 a.m.
Note to editors: Images available on request.
Getty Communications Dept.
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