J. Paul Getty Museum Opens STORIES OF SUFFERING AND SALVATION Exhibit Today
Venerated for their willingness to suffer torture and death, their ability to perform miracles, and their privileged place in heaven, saints were vital to medieval Christianity. These holy men and women attempted to follow Christ's example of piety and endurance in the face of persecution, and served as models of behavior and goodness.
Featuring objects from the Getty Museum's renowned manuscripts collection, Miracles and Martyrs: Saints in the Middle Ages, on view today, September 3, 2013-March 2, 2014 at the Getty Center, includes works that present the remarkable and astonishing stories associated with saints. Inspired by images of both great beauty and incredible horror, faithful Christians were eager to celebrate those who were thought to provide comfort in times of need and to reveal the presence of the divine in the earthly realm.
"Devotion to the saints was an integral aspect of medieval Christianity," explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. "This exhibition highlights a variety of types of books from the Museum's rich manuscripts collection, including private prayer books, devotional tracts, and biographies that relate to the worship of saints, illustrating through these beautiful images the widespread appeal and influence the cult of saints had in art and society during the period."
Saint Jerome Extracting a Thorn from a Lion's Paw, second quarter of 15th century. Master of the Murano Gradual (Italian, active about 1430-1460). Tempera and gold leaf on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 106, recto.
One of the most popular stories about a saint is illustrated in Saint Jerome Extracting a Thorn from a Lion's Paw (early 15th century) by the Master of the Murano Gradual. The compassionate Saint Jerome (about 345-420) uses golden tweezers to carefully remove a thorn from the paw of a lion that wandered into his monastery seeking care for its wound. A fearful monk in the background, cowering and holding a jar of ointment and a bandage, serves as a contrast to the monumental figure of Saint Jerome, whose voluminous robe occupies much of the image. As he tends to the lion's injury, the remarkably calm animal looks out boldly at the viewer. Understood to be sent by God, the lion became Saint Jerome's faithful companion and an honorary member of the monastic community.
It was believed that during their lives, saints experienced spectacular visions, performed miracles on behalf of the faithful, and were blessed by divine intervention in their lives. The extraordinary feats they performed and the heavenly revelations they witnessed helped to confirm the power of sainthood. Death was not a barrier to these holy men and women. In fact, after passing, saints were thought to intercede and protect devotees from harm and offer aid in difficult situations. Artists depicted these miracles in stunning images that made the mystical legends surrounding saints come to life for medieval readers.
One example of this kind of imagery can be found in a 1469 illumination of Saint Catherine by Taddeo Crivelli. With her right hand, Saint Catherine keeps her place in a book, while her left gently touches a spiked wheel. The scene highlights two of the best known aspects of this fourth-century saint's life story: the book before her symbolizes the great intelligence and learning that allowed her to confound pagan philosophers, and the wheel references God's miraculous destruction of the tortuous instrument with which she was threatened before her martyrdom.
Martyrs were greatly admired for braving intense persecution and their willingness to die for their faith. They refused to abandon their beliefs despite being threatened with such horrific violence as beheading or being slain with multiple arrows. In some instances, artists produced arresting scenes of martyrs at the moment of suffering. In others, the saints hold the instruments of their torture, serene in the knowledge that salvation awaits. These weapons, or sometimes other symbols associated with their legends, became the saints' standard visual attributes, allowing viewers to easily identify figures. Most martyrs died in the first few centuries after Christ's life, yet written accounts of their torments inspired striking visual responses well into the Middle Ages and beyond.
Saint Peter Martyr (detail), about 1469. Taddeo Crivelli (Italian, active about 1451-1479). Tempera colors, gold paint, gold leaf, and ink on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig IX 13, fol. 192v.
In a second illustration by Taddeo Crivelli, Saint Peter Martyr seems remarkably unperturbed by the great axe embedded in his head and the knife sticking out of his chest. The thirteenth-century saint was assassinated by those threatened by his remarkable ability to convert heretics.
"According to legend, Peter continued to pray even after the attack left him missing part of his skull," explains Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. "Despite this horrific injury, he is still seen in concentrated prayer, further reinforcing the steadfastness of his piety."