Winter is here and all men must die. These dictums reveal macabre and foreboding wisdom surrounding the upcoming, final season of HBO’s smash-hit series Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books.
As curators of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the Getty, we are thrilled to continue our tradition of bringing you episode recaps on the @gettymuseum Instagram and, here on The Iris, thematic tie-in posts to each episode using medieval art from our collection and around the world.
Why Recap Game of Thrones through Art?
Our aim in recapping Game of Thrones episodes with art has always been to draw connections between the Middle Ages (roughly 500–1500 in Europe, Africa, and Asia) and the show by sharing the breadth and depth of our manuscripts collection, as well as to bring some objects from the collection to light that otherwise have not been exhibited. (Our handmade books contain upwards of hundreds of painted images and decorations, but they are light-sensitive and can only be physically displayed for short periods of time.)
In the series:
- Awaiting Season 8: Snow, Frost, and Ice
- Episode 1: What do dragons eat, anyway?
- Episode 2: “Which Way Should I Go?” / “Which Way Do You Want To Go?”
- Episode 3: “What do we say to the god of death? Not today!”
- Episode 4: “What If There’s Someone Else? Someone Better?”
- Episode 5: “What have I told you? The greater the risk, the greater the reward?”
- Episode 6: “Why do you think I came all this way?”
Episode 6: “Why do you think I came all this way?”
The pages of illuminated manuscripts provide rare glimpses into the world of long ago. Handwritten words and painted scenes on parchment and paper preserve the memories, deeds, and knowledge of the women and men who came before us. As curators of medieval art, we are fortunate to work with these remarkable objects in a collection that spans the 9th through the early 20th century.
The ruins of the Middle Ages have long inspired nostalgia and fantasy for the past. The contours of the medieval period—as a field of study and as a chronological step between antiquity and the “Renaissance”— were conceived along the burgeoning nationalistic borders of nineteenth-century Europe, born out of Revolutions, the “Enlightenment,” and an Industrial and scientific age. There are obvious problems with this view of the thousand years that generally demarcate the Middle Ages (from about 500-1500).
The idea of the Middle Ages, filtered through popular culture and modern medievalisms, is still very much under construction. The world of Game of Thrones presents a vision of medieval fantasy — one that is heavily influenced by the pervasive, dangerous, and ultimately narrow and outdated stereotypes of a primarily white, heteronormative, and cisgender view of western Europe largely disconnected from the wider world. Yet from this contemporary conception of the past, we might learn something about ourselves, and perhaps, build a new and better idea of the Middle Ages from the ashes of the old.
We hope that this “Getty of Thrones” social media series has expanded our reader’s understanding of this rich, diverse, interconnected, and multivocal period in history.
Episode 5: “What have I told you? The greater the risk, the greater the reward?”
Prophecy and prolepsis —a divinely-inspired prediction of future events and the anticipation of something to come —are important themes in medieval art and throughout the Game of Thrones series. For the latter, we have seen Cersei’s children wear golden crowns and golden shrouds, and she was recently crushed alongside her twin brother, Jaime, who put his arms around her in their final moments (thus fulfilling the Valonqar prophecy); the Dragon Queen too has heard many prophecies, the weight of which will likely play out in the final episode.
The Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament contain significant prophetic writings by the so-called former and latter prophets of the Nevi’im and the major and minor prophets, respectively. Jeremiah’s prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem by fire, for example, appeared frequently in illuminated copies of the Bible and in manuscripts of history and chronicle. The Book of Job, part of the Ketuvim (or “Writings”) in Judaism or the poetic writings in Christianity, begins with a harrowing account of the prophet’s losses, including the total destruction of his home town, as “the fire of God fell from the heavens” and burned everything in its path (Job 1:16).
One of the most enigmatic and immensely popular prophetic texts is the Apocalypse, or the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible that describes the end of time leading to the Second Coming of Christ. This type of manuscript would be perfectly suited for Brandon Stark, as we predicted in season 4. The artist of a thirteenth-century English copy of the writings conceived the narratives as rectangular spaces framed with green, white, and red colored washes, and situated the writer Saint John the Divine alternatively within or beyond the enclosure of the scene, creating a window onto the spiritual encounters. Several sequences of esoteric signs serve as harbingers of ultimate destruction: the four horsemen represent war, famine, pestilence, and death; the blast of seven trumpets spells the demise of all those who live on the earth, who will be scorched by flames, pumulted by hail, consumed by locusts, and tortured by demons. Horrific beasts — including ferocious dragons (one featuring many heads) — reign fire and brimstone upon all things. None but the righteous can escape the carnage and onslaught of chaos.
One episode left but so many strands remain unresolved…
Episode 4: “What If There’s Someone Else? Someone Better?”
The claim to the Iron Throne and the chaos that ensues in one’s pursuit of this seat of absolute power dominates the plot of Game of Thrones. Throughout the series, counselors and advisors make prognostications about the virtues and vices of rulers of the past, present, and future. When multiple individuals have compelling claims to power, we might follow Sansa in asking, “What if there’s someone else? Someone better?” The political intrigue sparked by these seemingly simple questions will no doubt spread and consume all those witnessing the proverbial game of thrones.
Shifting our focus to medieval Europe, power structures involved royal and princely courts, the Church, universities, guilds, civic councils and governing assemblies. Leaders were expected to balance justice, a virtue associated with godly rule, and tyranny, a vice that ensured downfall and chaos. Social hierarchies at the time can be glimpsed through works of art, which were often created for elite individuals and therefore reveal the tenuous place of women (some of whom held positions of authority), the poor, and people perceived as foreign or other. Manuscripts, in particular, preserve several examples of images of good and bad government that reveal the constant struggle between base human instincts and loftier ideals. One message consistently communicated through the pages of books (of faith, law, history, and romance) is that tyranny is unsustainable.
Episode 3: “What do we say to the god of death? Not today!”
Death comes for us all. A grim thought, perhaps, but a reminder that we all must look this truth in the face. In the Manuscripts Department, we have often reflected on the theme of death in medieval art — through exhibitions and in the range of deathly imagery in the collection — and we have shared our own ruminations about the art of death and dying in an Iris post. The medieval world, like our own, was one of violent military encounters, horrifying pestilences, and a religious tradition whose visual imagery centered on crucifixion or saintly torture, and thus the devout prepared their minds, bodies, and souls daily for death’s cruel sting.
The genre of the “Dance of Death,” or danse macabre, was well known in text, image, and performance of the late Middle Ages. This tradition offered a simple, but powerful, message about the equalizing power of death: no matter what one’s earthly station was (from kings to commoners alike), death comes for us all. Images of the Dance of Death often feature animate skeletons delicately taking the hands of their victims, sweeping them up (many unwillingly) as in a waltz or at times violently dragging them away. The corpse-like personifications of Death were intended to shock viewers to deliver the message in a visceral way, warning people to live a faithful, pious life in order to ensure a passage into Heaven. Perhaps the most famous treatment of the danse macabre is the series by Hans Holbein (1497-1543) called Les simulachres et histoirees faces de la mort, seen in full here. In addition to his treatment of around forty scenes in which individuals encounter death, Holbein also designed an alphabet of death, a further reminder of death’s presence even in the very words we write.
The armies of the the Dead are defeated for now, but all of our favorite characters will eventually tangle with the god of Death. Valar morghulis (All men must die).
Episode 2: “Which Way Should I Go?” / “Which Way Do You Want To Go?”
Female leadership and power were on full display: Sansa Stark’s capability as the Lady of Winterfell, Daenerys taking charge in her typical authoritative way, Lady Mormont insisting on joining the fight, Arya designing a formidable weapon for battle and demonstrating her prowess with the blade, and even a young Winterfell girl eager to protect her own. But we also saw women’s power called into question: what is the role of women on the battlefield, as Brienne becomes a full-fledged knight? How might we come to terms with the idea that Daenerys’s claim to the Iron Throne—which she has doggedly pursued as a singular goal since Season 1—might be in jeopardy simply due to the existence of a male heir?
The question of the status of women in the Middle Ages was similarly negotiable, contested, and never quite settled. There are numerous examples of royal and noble women who transcended the traditional boundaries set for their gender and ruled either on their own, or, as was more often the case, in the stead of a male relative (a son or a husband): Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Blanche of Castile (1188-1252), Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482), Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) (among many others) each made names for themselves for their strong and capable leadership. Even in these cases, however, the rule of a woman was sometimes seen as problematic, going against the status quo. In France, women were even prevented by law from succeeding to the throne without a husband, and in many other cases, women were only allowed to rule other territories as widows, a political position that allowed them far more freedom. Male claims to titles and lands almost always held more sway—a practice about which Daenerys might have a few opinions.
We have far fewer examples of female knights from the Middle Ages—in Game of Thrones, Ser Brienne of Tarth is truly a pathbreaking figure in this regard. One of the most famous and controversial figures in French history is Joan of Arc (1412-1431), a peasant girl who aided the French against the English at a decisive moment of the Hundred Years’ War, but later still faced a trial on charges of witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man. She was executed at the age of 19 for her troubles.
Women trying to lead in the Middle Ages faced an uphill battle, despite their strong wills. We might turn to young Lady Mormont’s determined assertion to take part in the travails to come as an example for the modern age. After all, who run the world?
Episode 1: What do dragons eat, anyway?
Sansa’s suspicious curiosity about the culinary preferences of Daenerys’s dragons can in part be answered by the medieval bestiary, a kind of encyclopedia of animals and most popular source for animal lore in the Middle Ages.
Though it doesn’t specify a particular diet, the bestiary says that the dragon is a fearsome beast, the king of serpents that carries all its strength in its tail and can snare any other animal. It fears the shadow of the peridexion tree, where doves safely roost. The dragon lies in wait for the doves to leave the tree’s safety, and when they do, the dragon is able to catch them.
To a Christian reader, this tale was seen as symbolic: the peridexion tree represented the church, which offers assured safety to its believers, the doves, and the dragon symbolized the devil, always on the hunt for the faithful who had left their safe haven. Daenerys’s later comment that the dragons don’t like the North may also ring true with the bestiary legend, which locates them in the warmer climes of Ethiopia and India (geography from a medieval European perspective was…well, flexible and shifting). The dragon’s legend made it an attractive subject for medieval artists, and it appears everywhere in medieval manuscripts from marginalia to decorated initials.
The bestiary also says that the dragon is the natural enemy of the elephant, a creature we also heard a bit about in the first episode (writers of medieval-inspired fantasy love elephants, from J.R.R. Tolkien to George R.R. Martin). Elephants usually appear in bestiaries outfitted with howdahs, a kind of fortified castle that could carry soldiers into war—highly useful for queens like Cersei. And just for the record and to contradict the commander of the Golden Company, elephants did make sea voyages in the Middle Ages! The Getty collection includes an image of the ancient general Hannibal of Carthage (237 – about 183/181 BCE) transporting elephants by ship.
Awaiting Season 8: Snow, Frost, and Ice
With the final season set to begin April 14, 2019, we’re excited to start exercising our recapping muscles again soon—even as one of the challenges we will face is a dearth of imagery needed for this coming season. Over the last several seasons, we’ve mined the Getty’s manuscripts collection and the holdings of many other libraries and museums, and yet we find ourselves conspicuously short on winter-themed images, specifically scenes of snow, frost, and ice. Certainly medieval Europeans were familiar with snowy and icy winters—so why do we find so few images of these conditions in medieval manuscripts?
One explanation might lie in the common medieval belief in the balance of humors within the body. In this theory, humors existed as four different bodily liquids: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, which were each associated with fundamental elements (air, fire, earth, and water) and particular seasons (spring, summer, autumn, and winter). It was believed that, during each season, too much of its corresponding humor existed within the body and needed to be balanced out for overall health.
The humor associated with the winter season was phlegm, which was thought to be evened out through a diet of red wine and hot meats (perfect for Cersei Lannister). Viewing images of people warming themselves by the fire, feasting indoors, or baking bread were also thought to balance the feelings of cold in winter months. The fifteenth-century Italian humanist Marsilio Ficino advocated the viewing of greenery as a way to counter a melancholy (or dark and cold) temperament—the broody-moody medieval personality type. It may be that there are so few images of winter in medieval art because people thought that seeing too much snow would create added phlegm in their bodies, thereby unbalancing their humors.
Medieval calendars sometimes provide glimpses of winter and the warming activities just mentioned, but not in the total-earth-covering-frost-of-death that we anticipate will come in the final season of GoT. Nonetheless, we’ve gathered a selection of images of winter from the pages of manuscripts to the walls of palaces and churches, and even assembled some depictions of Hell itself (to see what we mean, re-read Dante’s Inferno and skip to the Ninth Circle—that of Treachery). We’ll share these wintery scenes throughout the season as we muse on the previous day’s episodes on this blog post, which will grow as the season continues, and on the @gettymuseum Instagram every Monday morning from April 15 to May 20, 2019.
We hope that the images we share each week pique your interest, expand your view of medieval history, and spark your imagination.
If you’re in Los Angeles and want to connect with medieval manuscripts in real life, be sure to visit the Getty Center to see two timely exhibitions: The Wondrous Cosmos in Medieval Manuscripts (April 30–July 28, 2019) and Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World (May 14–August 18, 2019).