Not horrifying: Martyrs and Saints Worshiping the Lamb of God; Female Martyrs and Saints Worshiping the Lamb of God in Spinola Hours, about 1415–20, Master of James IV of Scotland. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig IX 18, fol. 39v–40
I have conflicting feelings about Halloween: I’m easily frightened, but I also enjoy a good masquerade. This year I’ve decided to embrace suspense and to uncover some of the most horrifying images in the Getty manuscripts collection—horrifying by medieval standards, that is.
Halloween is deeply medieval. All Hallows’ Eve (October 31) was an important part of the Church year in the European Middle Ages. It was set aside as a night to commemorate the dead, to fast, and to prepare oneself for All Saints’ (or Hallows’) Day on November 1. This church feast honored all saints, known and unknown, and celebrated the end of the summer harvest and the coming of winter. Today, Halloween is more often dominated by stories of ghosts and ghouls, trick-or-treating, brave romps through haunted houses and graveyards, and of course, dressing up in costume.
Illuminated manuscripts provided the medieval reader-viewer with a rich array of images that often rival those that we encounter on Halloween, from gory scenes of decapitated martyrs or arrow-pierced saints to walking cadavers, creepy spiders, spooky cemeteries, and even witches and ghosts. The images that follow had a variety of functions: some served as moral exemplars, while others instilled fear or terror to inspire pious living, or reminded the living of the fleeting nature of life. Many are full of naturalistic details that heighten the visual experience.
Test your artistic acumen: Can you guess which medieval stories and saintly characters these images illustrate, and what they were meant to evoke?