History Wrapped Up in Gifts of the Ages

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Frustrated with Christmas shopping? Wondering why you ever got into the annual ritual of making lists, checking them twice and trying to find the perfect gift for every last relative, friend and business associate? The J. Paul Getty Museum has a show for you.

“The Art of Giving in the Middle Ages,” an exhibition of 20 illuminated manuscripts, may not explain the commercial phenomenon that grips the nation at this time of year, but it offers a timely bit of historical perspective--along with the respite of a quiet, rarefied environment. The darkened manuscripts gallery--which entices visitors to enter a world of medieval art and examine intricately detailed, miniature paintings in an intimate setting--is about as far as you can get from a shopping mall.

Still, giving gifts in the Middle Ages wasn’t a matter of pure generosity, as guest curator Adam S. Cohen points out in the exhibition brochure. “Gift giving is a complex and meaningful act, one of the most important ways that people forge social bonds and become integrated within the broader structures of society,” writes Cohen, a former Getty curatorial assistant who now teaches art history at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.


The first object visitors see is “The Adoration of the Magi,” a 13th century German painting of the three wise men presenting gifts to the infant Christ. The Christmas card-like image is the show’s icon because “it’s a fabulous thing” that portrays the origin of Christian gift giving, says Elizabeth Teviotdale, the Getty’s associate curator of manuscripts.

But the exhibition is more than a Christmas show. Conceived in three parts, it explores models of giving found in the Scriptures and accounts of saints’ lives, investigates the culture of giving in medieval society, and offers examples of books as gifts.

In the first section, a tiny painting in a 14th century French Bible portrays God beaming happily at Abel’s gift of his prize lamb, but covering his eyes in distress when he sees that Cain is only willing to part with a few stalks of wheat. If that visual drama suggests that there might be consequences to the brothers’ divergent behavior, a nearby pair of paintings, portraying the biblical legend of Dives and Lazarus, spells it out in graphic splendor. Dives, a wealthy and well-fed gentleman who refuses to give table scraps to Lazarus, suffers the tortures of hell while two angels carry the soul of the deceased beggar to heaven.

“You don’t really want to be the beggar who dies of starvation, but this doesn’t leave much doubt as to which side of the equation you should be on,” Teviotdale says of the manuscript.

In the Middle Ages, as today, gift giving was mostly a matter of exchange, Teviotdale says. Those who gave could expect to receive something in return.

“Wealthy people often gave land or money to a church or monastery so that the resident clergy or monks would pray regularly for the soul of the giver. Better still was to have the poor praying on your behalf because they were thought to have lived like Christ and to be particularly effective intercessors,” she says, pointing out a funeral scene in which a crippled man is given alms so that he will pray for the deceased.


Among other variations on the exhibition theme is a pictorial cycle on St. Anthony, who divested himself of worldly goods, lived miserably as a hermit and was rewarded with sainthood. Another illustrated manuscript portrays twin brothers who prayed to St. Victor to save them from a wild boar and dedicated a church to the saint when their prayers were answered.

Strolling through the second section of the exhibition, Teviotdale stops in front of a painting of Portuguese humanist Vasco da Lucena presenting a book to Charles the Bold, the duke of Burgundy. “Another thing you might want to give is your intellectual property,” she says, noting that the book is Vasco’s French translation of an ancient biography of Alexander the Great. But Vasco isn’t giving the book to Charles, she says. He is telling the nobleman that he has dedicated the translation to him.

“A scholar might do this in the hope of future favors,” Teviotdale says. “Some people probably weren’t happy to have things dedicated to them, but in this case it was probably not presumptuous. Vasco had worked for Charles’ mother, and he might have been paid to do the translation by Charles or a member of the court. And the text about Alexander was instructive for rulers.”


While most of the works on view attract visitors with vivid colors, gold flourishes, imaginative pictures and elaborately patterned borders, one relatively modest piece--an illustrated biography of Hedwig of Silesia from 1353--is of particular interest because it indicates a change in the culture of giving, Teviotdale says.

“It wasn’t enough to be like St. Anthony and just give away all your stuff and go off to live in the desert and be tortured. Part of the holy life was to participate in charity, so we see Hedwig feeding the sick, distributing gifts to the unfortunate, tending to prisoners and paying for their release. Hedwig exemplified a new kind of social activism.”

The final section of the show presents illuminated manuscripts that were created as gifts or made to commemorate engagements, marriages and diplomatic unions. In the Middle Ages, illuminated manuscripts were among the most luxurious and valuable possessions. Highly prized at monasteries and courts alike, they were preserved in treasuries, passed on as gifts and revered both for their texts and their pictures. Today, the illustrations are also appreciated as a well-preserved, miniature version of the evolution of painting from the middle ages to the Renaissance.


While the exhibition focuses on the Middle Ages, a few of the works were made somewhat later, in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. And one piece--a 15th century prayer book that American bibliophile Philip Hofer purchased in London in 1929 as an engagement present for his future wife--brings the subject of books as gifts up to the 20th century.

“It proves the point that sumptuous manuscripts were important gift objects at the time they were made, but they continue to have a life afterward,” Teviotdale says.


“THE ART OF GIVING IN THE MIDDLE AGES,” J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood. Dates: Through Feb. 4. Open Tuesday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thursday-Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Price: free; $5 parking fee; reservations required on weekdays. Phone: (310) 440-7300.