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Ornate Books of Faith and Devotion From the Permanent Collection Now on Display at the Getty

The Medieval Bestseller: Illuminated Books of Hours
October 29, 2002-January 26, 2003

November 4, 2002

Los Angeles—Beautiful and intimate, the book of hours—a personal book of prayers—was the most popular book of the Middle Ages. Drawn from the J. Paul Getty Museum’s permanent collection, The Medieval Bestseller: Illuminated Books of Hours, will be on display from October 29, 2002 to January 26, 2003, featuring 21 elaborate manuscripts from the 12th to the 16th century, created in Italy, England, France, Flanders, and Holland.

In the late Middle Ages, the book of hours served as an aid to the layperson’s prayer and private devotion, and no book was produced in greater quantity from the 14th through the 16th century.  For this reason, the book of hours has come to be called “the medieval bestseller.”  But in contrast to today’s mass production of books, medieval books of hours were tailor-made to the specifications of particular patrons. The Medieval Bestseller examines the book of hours in its historical context, and focuses on the often lavish illumination accorded books of hours made for the very wealthy, providing insight into an era when books were a unique and labor-intensive art form.

"Books of hours contain some of the finest surviving examples of late medieval painting," said Kurt Barstow of the Getty Museum's department of manuscripts. "Patrons with refined taste and financial resources were able to employ the most brilliant artists of the day to decorate their books of hours, and the collaboration between patron and artist sometimes resulted in works of great beauty, with the illumination serving as an integral part of experiencing the book." One manuscript that reveals the stunning results of such a patronage is the Hours of Simon de Varie. In its pictorial frontispiece by Jean Fouquet, Simon de Varie is shown kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child.  In this small work, Fouquet manages to portray the piety of his patron while also immortalizing him.

Equally eloquent are the illuminations for the Master of Guillebert de Mets’ Saint George and the Dragon. Books of hours usually contained a series of short prayers, called suffrages, addressed to individual saints. This miniature for the suffrage to Saint George is a sumptuous and lively example of courtly sophistication that would have appealed to a patron interested in chivalric themes. Saint George, who came to be an important model for the nobility, is portrayed with his sword raised to kill the beast, his fancy armorial trappings flowing from his shoulders into a variety of unlikely patterns. The foliate forms and banners in the border are woven together into a complex decorative net that mirrors the bravura of the saint’s fluttering drapery.

While books of hours were made to reflect the tastes of the patrons, the distinct personality of each of these one-of-a-kind manuscripts was also determined by the illuminators, who created unique visual accompaniments to various devotional texts that make up the book of hours, in particular, the Hours of the Virgin. This series of prayers, to be recited over the course of a day at eight specific times, is the core text of any book of hours. The Hours of the Virgin was most commonly illuminated with a series of scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, each one introducing one of the "hours" (the times set aside for prayers).

In a miniature by an artist in the workshop of the Boucicaut Master, the Annunciation to the Shepherds is depicted in such a way that the viewer is invited to contemplate how she or he might receive the news of the birth of Christ. The artist draws this out with portraits of differing reactions, showing one shepherd raising his hand to his brow, while another moves forward to embrace the news. Even the sheep register distinct reactions to the miraculous appearance. Some drink from a stream or nuzzle up against each other, unaware of the vision, while others raise their heads in recognition of the angels. These illuminated scenes, interpreted by the artist, provide a focus for religious contemplation that adds, or is equal, to the devotional texts they accompany. A skilled artist was able to make the religious exercise of reading the book of hours more intimate, bringing the reader closer to God.

Collections:

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

Note to Editors: images available upon request.

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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.