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LA’s Getty Museum illustrates death as seen in Europe’s Middle Ages

  • A detail of "The Beast Acheron," a medieval miniature made of tempera colors, gold leaf, gold paint, and ink on parchment, is displayed at the "Heaven, Hell and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages" exhibit at The Getty Museum in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Death, in “Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death,” appears much as he does today.

LOS ANGELES: Death and taxes may both be inevitable today, yet it seems only death could inspire great Medieval art. Life’s final curtain call, as seen through the brushes and pens of artists of the 13th-through-15th centuries, is the subject of the J. Paul Getty Museum’s latest exhibition, “Heaven, Hell and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages.”

With paintings, drawings, parchment illustrations and works on stained glass, each of them intricately detailed and most of them stunningly colorful, the exhibition takes visitors on a tour of the final days of existence and straight into the afterlife.

It opened last week in a dimly lit gallery. While the space was darkened mainly to protect the fragile parchment works, its muted lighting also manages to evoke a contemplative space for reflecting on the end of life’s existence.

The exhibition is the brainchild of guest curator Martin Schwarz, 26, who is fascinated by death and how its representation in modern films, books appears so strongly influenced by European artists of 500-700 years ago.

It was during the Middle Ages, Schwarz says, that those artists – perhaps influenced by the short life spans of a period marked by disease, wars and terrifyingly high child mortality rates – really began to envision what it was like to confront death at almost any moment.

What’s more, their work, often used to illustrate Biblical stories, began to take on a look that continues to this day in the way devils, vampires, angels and other such creatures are portrayed.

“If you think about the imagination of Heaven and Hell in movies and popular culture and books ... very much these ideas go back to the Middle Ages,” Schwarz said. “Everybody who thinks about Hell today knows about demons, and when we see them we identify them very easily because we know what they look like from these artists.”

In the 15th-century book “The Visions of the Knight Tondal,” for example, French artist Simon Marmion painted Hell pretty much as it is represented today: as a big, red, blast-furnace-like place filled with familiar demons and tortured souls.

Among those souls are a fair share of priests and nuns who are being tormented for eternity for failing to maintain chastity vows during their lifetimes.

“That’s among my favorites,” said Elizabeth Morrison, the museum’s senior curator of manuscripts, as she pointed out a collection of beleaguered priests and nuns. She noted it is a reminder that today’s priestly sex scandals are nothing new.

As for Death himself, in an illustration for the prayer book “Denise Poncher Before Death,” he also appears much as he does today. He’s a big, boney fellow covered in worms and armed with his trademark scythe.

In fact he’s carrying four scythes in Marmion’s work and, looking rather jaunty, almost appears to be showing them off as he confronts Poncher, a beautiful young woman of means, for whom art historians believe the expensive prayer book was created.

“It reminds you that death could be lurking around any corner and you’d better be prepared because you want to go to Heaven, not Hell,” Morrison said of the illustration. “It’s a realization that, yes, I’m young and beautiful, but I could die at any time, and that’s why I need for my soul to be prepared.”

Interestingly, though, even as people prepared for Heaven, most of the artists represented in the exhibition portrayed it as a pretty boring place.

In Flemish painter Master of James IV of Scotland’s illustration of the Biblical story of “The Feast of Dives,” for example, Heaven simply contains blue skies, a few trees and some winged angels milling about.

Hell, on the other hand, is filled with serpents, demons and other interesting-looking monsters that pass the time jabbing Dives with pitchforks after he’s been dispatched there for refusing to aid the beggar Lazarus.

Morrison said it’s likely that, as with the making of horror films today, Hell and all the evil it represents was simply much easier for artists of the Middle Ages to illustrate, especially after they unleashed their imaginations.

“When you hear people talking about Heaven, even nowadays, it’s like well, maybe there’s a field and birds tweeting and sunlight and it’s a good temperature,” she said. “But if you think about Hell you can come up with 30 images off the top of your head. There’s demons. There’s pain. There’s fire. There’s grills. There’s a devil.”

“Heaven, Hell and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages” is up at LA’s J. Paul Getty Museum until Aug. 12.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 12, 2012, on page 16.

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