Imagining the Past in France – 1250 – 1500AD – Getty Center

Imagining the Past in France – 1250 – 1500AD – Getty Center

Imagining the Past


Now on display at the Getty Center – and only until Saturday, February 6th, 2011 – is a stunning collection of Illuminated manuscripts from France.

This major international loan of precious and rare handmade volumes now on exhibition, here in Southern California, highlights one of the greatest chapters in the history of French art and the development of France as a nation.

Banner image: The Performance of a Crusade Play at King Charles V’s Feast (detail), Master of the Coronation of Charles VI, Paris, about 1375-80. From Great Chronicles of France (Grandes chroniques de France). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Ms. fr. 2813, fol. 473v

One of the highlights of this breathtaking exhibition of rare antiquities is an embellished scroll.  Entitled The Universal Chronicle, the scroll, which unfurls at nearly thirty-four feet in length, is one of twenty-nine surviving copies from the late 15th Century. It was painted and written by one or more now unknown artists and scribes, who presumably slaved over its creation for the better part of their lifetimes.  What is on display is a partially unfurled long section that depicts a critically important central sequence. Small, intricately painted designs illustrate the four columns of text.

This is a luxurious and lavishly presented exhibition. Great efforts were made to create an olde-worlde vibe; the rooms feel like castle interiors and are draped with heraldic tapestries.

Imagining the Past - Jean de Vaudetar (detail)

Photo ^ Jean Bondol, “Jean de Vaudetar Presenting a Book to King Charles V,” 1372, tempera and gold on parchment; Master of the Coronation of Charles VI Illuminator.  Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum

The books themselves are precious and exquisite, with brilliant, vivid colors and elegant composition and content.

This exhibition of fifty-eight French manuscripts and individual pages is the result of five exhaustive years of research by curators Elizabeth Morrison and Anne D. Hedeman.

Elizabeth Morrison is curator in the Department of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Anne D. Hedeman is professor of art history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


For more than 200 years””from about 1250 to about 1500″”monarchs and nobles employed the finest artists of the day to paint the heroic tales of bygone eras on the pages of lavish manuscripts. These illustrations helped the French understand their present and plan their future by celebrating an epic past.

In these manuscripts, the past came alive before the eyes of medieval French readers through images of the legendary deeds and adventures of epic figures such as Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, Emperor Charlemagne and even the Virgin Mary. These dramatic depictions of moral dilemmas, valiant battles, and chivalrous derring-do illuminate the broader conception of history in the Middle Ages, which often encompassed material that is now considered myth, propaganda, or outright invention.

From around 1250 to the close of the fifteenth century, the most important and original work being done in secular illumination was unquestionably in French vernacular history manuscripts.

Presented here are approximately fifty-five manuscripts from over twenty-five libraries and museums across the United States and Europe, supplemented by medieval objects ranging from tapestries to ivory boxes. Together they show how historical narratives came to play a decisive role at the French court and in the process inspired some of the most original and splendid artworks of the time.

The exhibition has been organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and has its sole presentation in Los Angeles. The Museum is also grateful for the generous support of MaryLou Boone (in honor of Bob and Lois Erburu), Jeffrey P. Cunard (in honor of Gerald and Lori Cunard), James E. and Elizabeth J. Ferrell, Mel Seiden (in honor of Bob and Lois Erburu), and Mr. and Mrs. L. von Hoffmann.

Imagining the Past - book cover

Also available for purchase is a weighty catalogue of this fine exhibition.

This volume celebrates the vivid historical imagery produced during these years by bringing together some of the finest masterpieces of illumination created in the Middle Ages. It is the first major publication to focus on exploring the ways in which text and illumination worked together to help show medieval readers the role and purpose of history.

Additional contributors to this volume include Élisabeth Antoine, R. Howard Bloch, Keith Busby, Joyce Coleman, Erin K. Donovan and Gabrielle M. Spiegel.

In this video, Curator Elizabeth Morrison introduces the exhibition and discusses the accompanying book from Getty Publications.

Imagining the Past in France

History in Manuscript Painting, 1250-1500

Author: Elizabeth Morrison and Anne D. Hedeman
Year: 2010
Details: 384 pages
9 x 12 inches
194 color illustrations, 1 map
Publisher: Getty Publications
Imprint: J. Paul Getty Museum
Item# 978-1-60606-029-2

Go here for more info and to order this fine tome.

Guided tours of the exhibition are also available to peruse online here.

Imagining the Past in France – 1250 – 1500

The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center
1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles

through February 6, 2011

Opening hours:

Tuesday-Friday 10:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Saturday 10:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.
Sunday 10:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Closed Mondays and on January 1, July 4 (Independence Day), Thanksgiving, and December 25 (Christmas Day).

Admission to the Getty Center and to all exhibitions is FREE“”no tickets or reservations are required for general admission.

Public Transportation
Get to the Getty Center via public transport! The Getty Center is served by Metro Rapid Line 761, which stops at the main gate on Sepulveda Boulevard. To find the route that is best for you, call (800) COMMUTE or use the Trip Planner — the Web site of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Parking is $15 per car. Entry is FREE after 5:00 p.m. for the Getty Center’s evening hours on Saturdays (when they are open until 9:00 p.m.), as well as for all evening public programming, including music, film, lectures, and other special programs held after 5:00 p.m.

Parking reservations are neither required nor accepted.

For more parking information, see hours, directions and info here including frequently asked questions.

Review by Pauline Adamek

Pauline Adamek

Pauline Adamek is a Los Angeles-based arts enthusiast with twenty-five years' experience covering International Film Festivals and reviewing new Theatre, Film and Restaurants.

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