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California Museum Showcases Lavish Medieval Books - 2002-12-29

A best selling book from the Middle Ages is again drawing crowds at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The exhibit features 21 hand crafted Books of Hours, which were personal guides to prayer, each illustrated with lavish paintings, ornate designs and gold lettering.

Kurt Barstow, the Getty Museum's assistant curator of manuscripts, organized the exhibit called "The Medieval Bestseller: Illuminated Books of Hours."

"In terms of the history of reading, the history of books, the history of manuscripts, they really are the most popular, the most used book from about the mid-13th century to the mid-16th century," he said. "More of these were produced and used and handed down than the Bible, for example. So they're just hugely important culturally."

In the early Middle Ages such devotional works were produced by monks, but by the 12th century, the starting point for this exhibition, they were more often created by secular artists commissioned by kings and nobles.

Mr. Barstow points to an example, a small book opened up to two richly colored paintings.

"The artist of this manuscript is named Jean Fouquet, who worked for the French royal court in the mid-15th century. And this is a book made for a man named Simon de Varie, who was a treasurer under King Charles VII," he explained. "This is a diptych with Simon de Varie kneeling on the right-hand side and praying to the Virgin and Child on the left-hand side."

In addition to picturing objects of devotion, the art works offer a glimpse into medieval life. The French official is shown in a suit of armor, topped with a scarlet and gold tunic. A woman in the background, who holds his family coat of arms, wears a gown and conical hat of the period.

The Book of Hours is a combination church calendar and devotional planner. Each is unique, but there are common themes. At the core of many are prayers to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was the object of great devotion among medieval Catholics. Others contain meditations on the life of Jesus.

The book guided pious believers through their daily prayers, which took place at regular hours, a practice borrowed from monks in monasteries. There was a prayer called Matins before dawn, another called Lauds at daybreak, and so on. The curator explains that one part of the exhibition shows the daily cycle.

"The whole suite of books along the back wall is designed to show each hour with its illumination, from Matins, which would be before dawn, through Compline, which was set before going to sleep. There were eight hours in all, and there was a pretty standard cycle of illustration," Mr. Barstow said.

The earliest illustrations lack a realistic sense of perspective, which was typical of medieval paintings. But the colors of the book illustrations, said the curator, are stunning.

"One of the reasons the color is so extraordinary, so vivid, is that the books are, unlike paintings, closed over time, not exposed over centuries to light," he added.

He said the brilliantly colored manuscripts hint at what medieval paintings looked like originally.

Most Books of Hours were written in Latin, the language of the church, although some later examples have sections in French and Dutch. There are biblical psalms and invocations to popular saints, including Saint George, the mythical slayer of dragons.

These works are among the finest surviving copies of the Book of Hours. They were commissioned by wealthy patrons and sometimes took years to finish. But many such works were in circulation, some less elaborate, without illustrations.

The Getty Museum official says these volumes come from an era before printing was mechanized, when each book was a work of art, and was valued and passed down to successive generations.

The exhibit "The Medieval Bestseller: Illuminated Books of Hours" will be on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles through January 26.