Art, Exhibitions and Installations, J. Paul Getty Museum, Manuscripts and Books

The Manuscript Files: A Medieval Holiday Message

On the opening page of the Abbey Bible, the first image we encounter is this roundel containing a scene of the Nativity of Christ.

A nativity scene in the Abbey Bible / Italian

Detail of a nativity scene in Initial D: Saint Jerome with Scenes of the Life of Christ in the Abbey Bible, Italian (probably Bologna), about 1250–1262. Tempera and gold leaf on parchment, each page 10 9/16 x 7 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 107.3v

According to Christian tradition, late in her pregnancy Mary traveled with Joseph to Bethlehem for a census, where they were turned away from the inn because there was no room. In the image, we see a red ox and a blue ass watching over a humble manger in a cave. It is only too easy to imagine the couple’s plight based on such images: a young woman forced to give birth in an unfamiliar place without help, her husband worried that he has provided inadequately for his family, and their overwhelming happiness when the baby is born healthy.

It might seem surprising to begin the first page of the Bible, which discusses the creation of the world, with images from Christ’s story, but medieval Christians saw in the beginning of Christ’s life on earth the promise of redemption from the original sin of Adam and Eve.

Today, in the midst of the holiday season, with New Year’s rapidly approaching, this image reminds me of the importance of providing shelter to the homeless, the joy of family and children, and the promise that every January 1st holds of a new beginning for everyone.

The Abbey Bible open to folios 3v and 4 in the gallery of "Gothic Grandeur" at the Getty Center

The Abbey Bible open to folios 3v and 4 in the gallery of "Gothic Grandeur." The roundel with the nativity scene appears at the far lower left.

The Manuscript Files is an occasional column featuring details from manuscripts in the exhibition Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350, on view in two rotations at the Getty Center through May 13, 2012.

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One Comment

  1. louise smith
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    WOW !!!! what i wouldn’t give to live out there and be able to see this exhibit!
    i am a calligrapher (not a pro) but have always enjoyed studying the history of writing and just love seeing all things handwritten– thanks to all of you for taking care of all this and displaying it –esp in such a careful manner– bravo!!!

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.


      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”

      02/11/16

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