Medieval Art’s Enduring Hold on Pop Culture
In a new exhibition at the Getty, prints and paintings from the Middle Ages sit beside pop culture artifacts
From Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, pop culture is saturated with medieval imagery. Now, a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, “The Fantasy of the Middle Ages,” explores this connection by juxtaposing medieval art with the modern creations it inspired.
“I think the project of this exhibition was to pull back the curtain on what aspects of these beloved franchises are actually medieval and which are the product of historical imagination over time,” Larisa Grollemond, assistant curator of manuscripts at the Getty, tells the Hollywood Reporter’s Evan Nicole Brown.
The inspiration for the exhibition goes back to a 2014 social media initiative called “Getty of Thrones,” which provided Game of Thrones recaps using images of medieval manuscripts from the museum’s collection, reports Artnet’s Vittoria Benzine. As the Getty quickly began fielding questions about the show’s historical accuracy, the initiative evolved into Instagram explainer videos about the show’s medieval influences.
The new exhibition showcases medieval prayer books, prints and paintings next to objects related to pop culture. Per the Los Angeles Times’ Deborah Vankin, some of those objects are on loan from Getty staffers: Employees have provided Dungeons & Dragons game pieces, replica swords, Halloween costumes and Beanie Babies.
One particularly famous franchise that borrows from the Middle Ages is Harry Potter. In the movies, several scenes inside Hogwarts were filmed in the 12th-century Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford; an 1879 print of the church is on display in the exhibition.
Other stories in pop culture borrow less obviously from the Middle Ages. Take, for instance, Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty. The exhibition displays one of Eyvind Earle’s background studies for the movie, which depicts robed women on horseback carrying banners as they move toward a castle.
Earle drew heavily from medieval influences for the backgrounds, many of which have been lauded by modern animators and art critics but were bemoaned as “too busy” by some of Earle’s colleagues.
That “busyness,” as well as the flat nature of the landscapes, “really has the kind of cadence of medieval art,” Grollemond tells the Los Angeles Times.
The background study is “sort of a visual shock” with neon colors that “just hit you over the head with a kind of vividness,” says Grollemond to the Hollywood Reporter. Though some of those specific colors wouldn’t have been available to artists in the Middle Ages, many illustrations from the time did use bright, saturated hues.
One such example in the exhibition is a 15th-century prayer book illustration of Saint George slaying the dragon. Grollemond says, “I chose it because it’s so much how we think of the Middle Ages as this colorful, dramatic place.”
“The Fantasy of the Middle Ages” is on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum through September 11.