Anyone who has peered over the soft vellum pages of an illuminated manuscript will have marveled over its intricate and colorful designs, which range from stylized floral borders to decorated initials. A new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, titled “Graphic Design in the Middle Ages,” brings together manuscripts from different cultural traditions to show how these elaborate arrangements have long delighted readers and guided our interpretation of the texts.
Working together by hand, a scribe and illustrator would usually start by devising a book’s overarching design before producing unique layouts for the individual pages within. Visitors to the show will note how many of these experiments have become blueprints for how we still organize text today.
The first of four themes, “Designing the Medieval Page,” lifts the veil on some of the planning that went into the expensive and lengthy process of making a manuscript. Before putting pen to paper, the artists must strike the right balance between image and text, a decision mostly informed by the book’s message and its intended audience.
“Text and Design,” recalls a time long before we could browse a drop-down menu of readymade fonts by revealing some of the first techniques for guiding the eye across the page. This included emphasizing initials at the start of a sentence and the use of color to highlight more important parts of the text, as well as more subtle visual cues like those used to mark out specific dates or introduce a paragraph break.
Other means of communicating information that we may be more accustomed to seeing on a Powerpoint appear in their earliest forms in the section “Visualizing Information,” including diagrams, charts, and other methods for organizing and making sense of data. But not every design decision brought greater clarity. Some of the motifs included in the final section “Ornament and Abstraction” could almost be seen as a secret code, adding nuance or obscuring meaning to encourage thoughtful analysis and challenge even the most learned reader.
“We tend to think of ‘graphic design’ as a modern thing, something that happens in primarily digital spaces,” said curator Larisa Grollemond. “Medieval books are masterclasses in delivering complex information in interesting and visually sophisticated ways.”
Check out manuscripts from the exhibition below.
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