Classical antiquity was a glorious age of reason and creativity. But after the fall of Rome, Europe lapsed into a thousand years of cultural gloom, saved only by the rediscovery of ancient ideas and art in the Renaissance.
Not exactly, say Getty Museum curators Kristen Collins and Kenneth Lapatin. Their exhibition Remembering Antiquity, curated with former graduate intern Rheagan Martin, combines objects from two of the Getty’s collecting areas, Greek and Roman antiquities (Ken’s world) and illuminated manuscripts (Kristen’s), to show “interaction, continuity, and reinvention” of the Greek and Roman past throughout the Middle Ages (about A.D. 500–1500).
“The idea of the ‘Dark Ages’ implies a total loss of culture,” says Kristen, “which, obviously, as a medievalist I don’t subscribe to.” The term was all too often used to describe the period from the fall of Rome in A.D. 476 to the establishment of the Carolingian Empire in 800. Historians don’t use the term any longer, but it has crept into common use as a blanket term for the Middle Ages.
The Dark Ages myth is seductive because it taps into a western cultural meme, the longing for a lost Golden Age. (Even medieval writers indulged in this myth: writing in 1343, poet and scholar Petrarch described the Middle Ages as “a sleep of forgetfulness.”) But in fact, says Kristen, “for people in the Middle Ages, there was no clear division between antique and medieval.”
Texts of history, science, philosophy, and astrology that transmitted ancient ideas were known throughout the Middle Ages, often through texts preserved in Arabic. Visual forms lived on in the physical remains of antiquity—in particular, in the ancient statues and architecture that dotted Europe. The Renaissance did produce innovations in science and re-introduce old concepts, such as naturalism in art, but it did not resuscitate antiquity, because antiquity was alive and well all along.
One wall of the exhibition sets up this idea by presenting four groupings of objects that reflect “iterative renaissances,” or periods in which medieval culture dipped particularly heavily into the ancient past. In one grouping, acanthus leaves on a Roman cinerarium (receptacle for human ashes) are displayed next to a Carolingian illumination with the same motifs. In another, a 12th-century student’s slightly dog-eared astronomy textbook sits next to a Roman cup with signs of the Zodiac.
On a different wall, a fragmentary Latin slab hangs alongside a Carolingian manuscript page that mimics ancient engraved lettering. Ken likens the letters to English signs reading “ye olde shoppe”—clever branding through script to evoke a once-glorious past. The Carolingians were particularly savvy at the ancient-symbolism game, using Roman allusions to bolster Charlemagne’s imperial ambitions.
In medieval art, ancient motifs were frequently imbued with new biblical meanings. “They were transforming the pagan to the Christian,” Ken told us, “so they had to consider whether it was okay to put, say, a Venus on a fancy dress—you had to emphasize certain features and deemphasize others.” For example, the griffin, fierce hybrid of ancient mythology, was repurposed to symbolize sins that must be conquered.
Heroic ancients such as Alexander the Great continued to be celebrated in the Middle Ages, but their form changed to fit the new worldview. One display case in the exhibition stars an ancient marble sculpture of a buff Alexander in the nude. Centuries later he shows up again in a manuscript illumination, almost unrecognizable in the robes of a medieval Christian courtier. (Look for him in another book tempting a pair of griffins with shish kebabs.)
Kristen’s favorite grouping presents a pair of ancient earrings of the goddess Nike and a cutting from a bible made almost 1,400 years later. Both the Christian angel at the far right of the tiny painting, and the gilded pagan idol at the far left, are inspired by the same winged victory motif. One good, the other evil—showing the flexibility of ancient motifs and the ways they could be adapted for medieval use.
To find echoes like these, the curators went back and forth between the two areas of the collection, unearthing ancient motifs, ideas, and stories in manuscripts and looking for classical precursors in the Getty Villa’s holdings. None of these exact ancient objects were known to medieval artists, but they saw things like them—vase fragments, bronzes, earrings, engravings, sculptures, coins, textiles—and made them their own.
“You could almost call this show ‘projections onto antiquity,’” Ken told us, “because it’s about people viewing the ancient world in their own context, projecting their own needs and concerns onto the past.”