Heavenly art in the Middle Ages

28th August 2012

The Middle Ages ultimately began with the ousting of Romulus Augustus from his position of power as the last emperor of Rome in 476 AD, which marked the symbolic end of this longstanding empire.

It is generally thought to have ended in the fifteenth century, with the emergence Renaissance precipitating another dramatic departure for humanity. This would lead eventually towards modernity and, in the words of the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the end of God.

"God is dead," he famously wrote, in a passage that has continued to fascinate intellectuals and theologians.

"God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves?"

While it is a certainty that such musings would have come across numerous individuals in Europeans during the Middle Ages, it is fair to say that most people remained dedicated to a higher being. This devotion is explored in a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, which takes a detailed look at the central importance of prayer, both communal and personal.

"Christians in the Middle Ages often celebrated their beliefs with lavishly illuminated devotional books," said Elizabeth Morrison, acting senior curator of manuscripts at the museum. "Full-page images and page borders brimming with fantastic figures and scenes focused attention on important texts and rites."

These books, held in such high regard as religious texts, were considered to be almost transcendent, the power of the words in them mesmeric and inspiring, which promoted a pious way of life that would lead eventually to God. The labour in creating them was painstaking, composed as they were of valuable pigments and even gold.

The Art of Devotion in the Middle Ages is made up of three themes, which are based on important aspects of religious life: devotional literature, private devotion and public devotion.

Devotional literature looks at the expansive range of texts that were produced to stir piousness and contemplation in medieval Christians. Engaging in such texts on a daily basis was the norm, the idea being that the familiarisation of religious narratives would help engender a personal connection with Jesus.

"What’s fascinating about devotional texts of the Middle Ages is the variety of decoration that they could inspire, from narrative scenes set against shimmering gold backgrounds to playful border decorations featuring charming animals and lush vegetation," Ms Morrison added.

"From piety came innovative works of art that inspired and elevated readers, whether they were taking part in a church service, praying privately at home, or studying a particular aspect of Christianity."

Private devotion examines the use of small, but equally resplendent prayer books, which allowed people to continue their exploration of faith outside of church services. Expensive, these texts were usuallyowned by those who held a senior position, usually within a church. One of the highlights of the show in this area is the luxuriously illustrated Annunciation to the Shepherds (1480–90), from a book of hours by Georges Trubert.

Finally, we come to public devotion, which helps, in part, document the dramatic changes in the way Christian worshipped; from the simple ceremonies that followed in the early days of the religion to the more elaborate rites that have became customary during the Middle Ages.

The books used for such services in the liturgy – which is to say communal worship – were magnificent creations, developed in such a way as to emphasise its grandeur, and over the years, they grew to be more intricate, decorated and impressive.

This was deliberate. On the one hand, it was a celebration of the supremacy of the text, while on the other hand, it made a bold statement: this church is both wealthy and powerful. They were often placed on a lectern to as many people in the congregation a view.

The exhibition proves to be a fascinating insight to worship during the Middle Ages and the enduring dominance of religion on all aspects of people's lives. Everything was, after all, leading towards the kingdom of heaven, and so it paid to be devout.

Words, though more than enough enrich the lives of people and give them a code to abide by, were amplified by pictures and decoration. The imagination is a powerful thing, but sometimes we need someone else to transform the words into visual narratives. This kind of art was a heavenly thing.

The Art of Devotion in the Middle Ages at the J. Paul Getty Museum runs until February 3rd 2012.

Cadogan Tate offers high-security handling and shipping for its fine art customers, which is delivered by seasoned art handlers.

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