Art review: ‘Imagining the Past in France: 1250-1500’ at the J. Paul Getty Museum


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An extraordinary embellished scroll opens ‘Imagining the Past in France: 1250-1500,’ the similarly extraordinary exhibition recently opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum. It introduces one of the strangest, most coercive if successful ideas to have taken hold in Europe in the past two millenniums.

Painted and written by one or more now unknown artists and scribes and dubbed ‘The Universal Chronicle,’ the scroll, nearly 34 feet in length, is one of 29 surviving copies from the late 15th century. Partially unfurled here to show a long and critically important central sequence, with small painted medallions sprinkled into four columns of text, it is not the most beautiful among the show’s 58 French manuscripts and individual sheets. But it says a lot.


This imposing scroll asserts that history is a divinely ordained continuum. The rich and powerful people in charge have been put there by God, as have those of less than aristocratic station; so, don’t get any ideas about changing things.

The section of scroll on view begins with the ancient founding of Paris and concludes with the baptism of Clovis, France’s first Christian king, who abandoned his pagan beliefs around 499. An image showing the medieval city is drawn and painted as a contemporary fortress, rather than an older Roman-era village; five centuries and numerous events later, the king sits in an immense baptismal font shaped like a communion chalice, a bishop at his side and an angel holding a fleur-de-lis shield behind him.

In between, circular miniatures are like little antique medallions picturing the text. They show Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great dressed in chain-mail armor, Jesus’ nativity (in the verdant French countryside, it appears), the bloody assassination of Julius Caesar and more.

As the scroll unfurls, history in essence transforms the ancient global powerhouse of pagan Rome into Catholic France, personified by Clovis. The ‘Universal Chronicle’ tells an epic story, and it is centered on the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

And don’t you forget it. The king rules because God wants him to, and any claim to the contrary is not just willfully ignorant, contemptible or uppity. It’s not nice to fool with the all-knowing deity -- it’s a sin.

Royal artists, scribes and advisors concocted some mind-bending manuscripts in the Middle Ages to enshrine this irrational but effective doctrine, embedding it deep in the aristocratic psyche and the larger social fabric. Take a 1372 ‘historical bible’ mixing the legacies of church and state. It starts with a knockout frontispiece by Jean Bondol, which shows the Bible being presented to King Charles V by a trusted aide.


King and kneeling commoner are pressed together in an unusually intimate encounter, united by their reverence for the book. Excited, the king has slipped off a glove to point at the big tome being thrust into his line of sight.

The aide has clearly hurried into the enclosed chamber, as his left foot trailing outside the framed scene attests. The book is opened to a gold-leafed picture of Christ enthroned in majesty -- an illumination within an illumination, which cleverly mimics the enthroned pose of the king who looks at it.

The picture faces the first lines of Genesis. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and now he has put Charles in charge.

No wonder the king is excited. So are we. A picture shows the king receiving an authoritative book, which is in fact the very book laid out before us. The dazzling conceptual solipsism approaches the notion of the word made flesh. It must all be true!

The exhibition, deftly organized by Getty curator Elizabeth Morrison and University of Illinois medievalist Anne D. Hedeman, is jammed with tour-de-force marvels such as this. Because many are secular rather than religious texts, such as private prayer books, they tend to be relatively large, written in French instead of Latin. But given the courtly clients for whom they were made, they don’t skimp on sumptuousness.

Divided into five sections, the show covers lots of bases. Labeling and some computer touch-screens do a good job with supportive information.

The introductory scroll is in a room that explains what kinds of narratives -- early Roman history, the life of King David as a model for the present, current events as cautionary tales, etc. -- were common, as well as whom they were made for.

Next come three galleries that go into greater detail, focusing on various subjects taken from classical, Christian and medieval history. The final and largest room looks at the most prominent heroes from those three histories, while showing how the narratives permeated court culture in forms other than books: painted plaques, carved ivory boxes, textiles, tapestries, printing blocks and more.

One of the most remarkable is a bawdy, late 14th century sculptural aquamanile -- a bronze ewer used for washing hands -- which shows a woman riding an old man on all fours like an ass, her hand suggestively placed on his rump. It’s Phyllis, the beauty who seduced and then humiliated the aging philosopher Aristotle, proving that brains don’t always trump passions.

Brains eventually did win out over the emotionally powerful nuttiness of the divine right of kings. Much credit goes to a different kind of book, which eventually wiped out illuminated manuscripts. Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press -- launched into wider use around the time ‘The Universal Chronicle’ scroll was being scripted and painted by hand -- signaled the beginning of the end. It’s hard to control the narrative when the production and distribution of knowledge gets away from you.

The French circled the wagons, though, with jurist Jean Bodin writing an explicit codification of the theory that royals are accountable only to God. But the doctrine couldn’t last, morphing over coming centuries into a fringe position.

Remnants linger today, as when Michael Gerson, speechwriter for George W. Bush, famously said after Bush’s Sept. 20, 2001, address to Congress, ‘Mr. President, when I saw you on television, I thought -- God wanted you there.’ (Bush demurred, ‘He wants us all there, Gerson.’) ‘Imagining the Past in France,’ with fantastic loans of rarely seen illuminated manuscripts from museums and libraries across the United States and Europe, plus a first-rate catalog, is as topically potent as it is historically enlightening.

-- Christopher Knight

Imagining the Past in France: 1250-1500, J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, (310) 440-7300, through Feb. 6. Closed Monday.


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