The Getty has recently added three objects to its collection of illuminated manuscripts. Two are mobile device-sized Italian Renaissance paintings: a serious-funny St. Jerome with side-eye-fever lion by the Master of the Murano Gradual, and a serious-dreamy youth by a Leonardo follower, Master B.F. Both quirky artists were already represented at the Getty by a cutting each.
The Getty didn’t own any Ethiopian manuscripts until London dealer Sam Fogg donated a leaf of St. John from a c. 1400 gospel book. Maybe he intended to juice the market, and he did. In 2008, the Getty bought a whole gospel book from Ethiopia, and last year it added a second one. With that, Ethiopia is no longer an outlier in the manuscript collection. Given the early date, the Getty’s three Ethiopian manuscripts constitute a significant holding. Muslim iconoclasm from 1520 to about 1600 destroyed nearly all of the early Christian manuscripts. It’s said that there are barely a dozen complete, pre-1520 illuminated Christian books. Princeton has 300-some Ethiopian manuscripts, mostly later or text-only. Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum has eight early Ethiopian manuscripts, and that’s said to be the biggest holding outside of Ethiopia.
The Getty’s two gospel books are in the Gunda Gunde style that peaked just about when the Italian Renaissance did. Gunda Gunde is pattern-scintillating and color-syncopating. Neither the rigorous naturalism nor the equipoise of the Italian Renaissance had traction in 16th-century Ethiopia. Gunda Gunde plays with its own hard-edge awkwardness as cleverly as Ammi Phillips or South Park does. In the new manuscript’s St. John (below), the tabletop still life, or even the hands, recapitulate the paradox of art (and of animation, wherein the median number of fingers per hand is four).
It’s patronizing to praise older art by calling it modern. That’s a compliment that isn’t. It presupposes art history to be a beeline from primordial ooze to the perfect, fantastic now. Whatever… Both Ethiopian gospel books are on view in “In the Beginning Was the Word: Medieval Gospel Illumination.” Expect to hear them called the most “modern” things in the Getty’s manuscript collection.
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