Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Manuscripts and Books

Slaving Over a Hot Medieval Stove

If cooking for a crowd seems like hard work today, imagine what it must have been like in the Middle Ages, before the advent of electricity, indoor plumbing, or take-out. Two illuminations from a psalter (book of Psalms) offer a humorous glimpse into the medieval domestic kitchen some 800 years ago.

Baking Bread / Unknown illuminator, Belgium

Baking Bread (detail) in a psalter by an unknown illuminator, Belgium, mid-1200s. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, each leaf 9 1/4 x 6 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, fol. 8v

Here we see bread-making as a never-ending struggle between cook and dough. At left, an apprentice is up to his forearms in a vast trough of goo; at right, a baker plunges her peel into the forge, worriedly eyeing the flames licking at her forehead.

A Man Warming by the Fire (detail) in a psalter by an unknown illuminator, Belgium, mid-1200s. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, each leaf 9 1/4 x 6 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, fol. 3

This illumination offers a glimpse of the fruits of such labor. Nestled below hanging sausages and a partially eaten ham, a warmly dressed man presides over a veritable feast, with various foodstuffs and eating implements littering the table. With his right hand, he reaches for a large joint of meat, while his left is occupied holding his foot up to a fire—the best of both worlds! In the foreground, a harried-looking serving boy rushes up to refill a pitcher from a barrel. I picture rowdy guests yelling after him for more booze, much like calling for another beer while watching Thanksgiving-day football.

Other pages of this same manuscript feature more wonderful pictures of food-related labor: scything grass for hay, gathering acorns to feed hogs, pruning fruit trees, lugging bags of grapes.

Food is work, and we give thanks to all those who grow, bake, cook, and serve it. Happy Thanksgiving!

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      Olympian Census #4: Aphrodite

      Get the stats on your favorite (and not-so-favorite) gods and goddesses on view at the Getty Center.

      Roman name: Venus

      Employment: Goddess of Love and Beauty

      Place of residence: Mount Olympus

      Parents: Born out of sea foam formed when Uranus’s castrated genitals were thrown into the ocean

      Marital status: Married to Hephaestus, the God of Blacksmiths, but had many lovers, both immortal and mortal

      Offspring: Aeneas, Cupid, Eros, Harmonia, Hermaphroditos, and more

      Symbol: Dove, swan, and roses

      Special talent: Being beautiful and sexy could never have been easier for this Greek goddess

      Highlights reel:

      • Zeus knew she was trouble when she walked in (Sorry, Taylor Swift) to Mount Olympus for the first time. So Zeus married Aphrodite to his son Hephaestus (Vulcan), forming the perfect “Beauty and the Beast” couple.
      • When Aphrodite and Persephone, the queen of the underworld, both fell in love with the beautiful mortal boy Adonis, Zeus gave Adonis the choice to live with one goddess for 1/3 of the year and the other for 2/3. Adonis chose to live with Aphrodite longer, only to die young.
      • Aphrodite offered Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman, to Paris, a Trojan prince, to win the Golden Apple from him over Hera and Athena. She just conveniently forgot the fact that Helen was already married. Oops. Hello, Trojan War!

      Olympian Census is a 12-part series profiling gods in art at the Getty Center.


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