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Manuscripts: major works of art

Illuminated manuscripts are books from early medieval times through the Renaissance. Considered major works of art, they were written and decorated by hand with gold, silver, lapis, and other precious materials. Explore several exemplars, including the finest German illuminated manuscript of the 12th century, the Stammheim Missal, as well as other religious and secular works. Created by Getty Museum.

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Video transcript

Male: Most people, when they come upon the gallery, I think, are rather surprised that these little books were even important objects, or that they could be so finely and so splendidly painted. People often don't realize that the greatest artists, the finest artists, of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance illuminated manuscripts. They were a primary art form, not a minor or decorative art form. The earliest great illuminated manuscripts were of liturgical use. They were used in the celebration of the divine services. They are books that were written by hand and painted by hand, and painted with gold, silver, lapis, and precious materials, to glorify the Word of God. The Stammheim Missal is arguably the greatest manuscript in the Getty collection. It is considered the finest German illuminated manuscript of the twelfth century. This miniature on the left is one of the great miniatures, I think, in the book. It shows Christ at his second coming, where He's shown resurrected in glory. His hand is raised in blessing, and it's all arranged in this very simple design, with the mandorla in the center, the strong symmetry. The symbols of the evangelists are shown in these little half-circles. Essentially, it has a very elaborate, geometric structure. Part of the beauty of this book is, despite the amount of moral and spiritual message that the artist endeavors to imply, that it's all done with a great kind of clarity. One of the greatest manuscripts in the collection is this prayer book called, "The Prayer Book Albrecht of Brandenburg." Each of the prayers is illustrated with a magnificent miniature, which tells the very, very familiar story of Christ from the time of the Annunciation, and all of these miniatures are set in these wonderful nocturnal scenes, that are lit only by candlelight and torches, as you see here, so that in fact, the effect in itself is very, very dramatic. Christ is always shown as this very human, very sensitive and fragile individual. This manuscript is a great secular manuscript, written by Giovanni Boccaccio, the great Italian author of "The Decameron." "The Fates of Illustrious Men and Women" tells how people rose up to fame and power and importance, and often, not long afterwards, suffered unpleasant fate. The miniature that you see here tells the story of Adam and Eve, and it's painted by The Boucicaut Master. The Boucicaut Master was the greatest French illuminator of the first half of the fifteenth century, and an enormously influential and important artist. Part of his greatness is, in fact, as a storyteller, for the wonderful clarity with which he conveys the different narratives in the book. On the left you see Boccaccio himself, as he writes the story of this book, and on the right we have the stooped Adam and Eve. The aged couple are approaching him, in fact, to tell their narrative. In a way, the story all begins with Boccaccio and his vision of their life. Such a book was opened at night, and as the owner, or whatever, sat in bed, one of his aides would actually read them aloud, and then of course they would have the opportunity to look at the wonderful pictures. I think it's important to keep in mind that although they were books, they came to be prized more and more as works of art. They were brought out on special occasions, and they were shown to colleagues and friends and courtiers as an example of the status and the taste and the judgment of their patrons.