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The Fantasy of the Middle Ages at the Getty Museum


CONCEPT ART 1958. Evynd Earle (American, 1968 – 2000). From Sleeping Beauty (Walt Disney Productions). Hilbert Collection. Disney Enterprises, Inc.

August 29, 2022

By Laurie Hanson

Romantic medieval times are relevant and alive today at “The Fantasy of the Middle Ages” exhibition going on now thru Sept. 11 at the Getty Center in Brentwood.

“Because medieval-inspired stories are still so prevalent in our popular culture today, I believe it’s crucially important to think about why we believe certain things about the medieval period, and how those expectations have been shaped,” said Assistant Curator of Manuscripts Larisa Grollemond, who has been with the Getty Museum for 6 years. “[It’s] not [shaped] just by ‘real’ medieval art, but so much so by later iterations of the stories and all different kinds of artistic and narrative interventions over the course of many centuries.”

She said some examples of medieval-inspired stories told today include Rings of Power–the new Lord of the Rings prequel series on Amazon Prime, House of the Dragon–the new Game of Thrones prequel series on HBO, and the recent retellings of Arthur stories in Netflix’s Cursed and A24’s The Green Knight).

“The Fantasy of the Middle Ages” exhibition took about two and half years from conception to installation, including the writing of the related publication of the same name. It involves much from popular culture (as in fairy tales, Disney animated films, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones). 

“It feels it has been in the works for a lifetime,” said Grollemond, who has had interests in the Middle Ages since childhood. “Anything that draws upon [this time] for inspiration, is so present in our visual culture today. 

“The Fantasy of the Middle Ages came together because it’s endlessly inspiring for artists and creators, and especially in contemporary popular culture,” she added. “The period provides a seemingly endless well of inspiration [with] beloved character archetypes, architectural spaces that spark the imagination, and dramatic narratives.” “[These] are perfectly suited to retellings, each iteration adding something new.”

According to Grollemond, medievalism tells people today more about the period and place in which they were created than about the period itself. 

In such, artists have been able to use its history to explore aspects of their own worlds.

“I think the Middle Ages, in its connection to the idea of fantasy, has proven to be so flexible and so applicable to people in many different moments in history, and that makes the period an interesting one for exploring contemporary social issues and concerns,” she explained. 

For Grollemond, it felt important for the exhibit to trace this long history back as far as possible and to examine layering of different “medieval” aspects of fantasy such as castles, dragons, witches, and how they result in a version of the period that still feels present today. 

The Fantasy of the Middle Ages unfolds over two galleries and is divided into five sections linked by an atrium space that holds a special display of pop culture “ephemera” lent by Getty staff. 


THE BATTLE BETWEEN Arnault de Lorraine and His Wife Lydia, 1467 – 1462. By Flemish artists. Tempra colors, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment. Getty Museum. 

The exhibition represents about 700 years of art history, with everything from illuminated manuscripts, illustrated printed books, photography, film and costume studies, magic wands, and even a pop-up book, according to Grollemond. 

“It explores the origins and inspiration of medievalism found in illuminated manuscripts, then traces the evolution of those places, characters, and thematic strands through their appearance in later moments,” she explained. “[This includes] the revivals of the late 19th Century, the introduction and proliferation of books for children, and eventually finding their way to reenactment and film in the 20th and 21st Centuries.” 

The exhibition has about 60 objects on view including several masterpieces of illuminated manuscripts from the Getty’s permanent collection, alongside illustrated books, prints, photographs, and drawings from a variety of California lenders. 

The atrium space between the two exhibition galleries is home to an eclectic mix of objects representing the ways the Middle Ages still lives today and includes books, DVDs, toys, costumes, and other memorabilia lent by Getty staff.

“There’s a lot in the exhibition that I think visitors will already be quite familiar with, and I hope that the works on view prompt them to think about the Middle Ages perhaps slightly differently than they have in the past,” Grollemond said. “Being able to see objects in popular visual culture [all together] from many different centuries really crystallizes the considerable impact that the Middle Ages has had on our imaginations, and its long visual legacy that continues to this day.”

She went on to say that though most of the artists in the exhibit may be unfamiliar to many visitors, their subjects are well-known. Works include those of William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, Andy Warhol, Stephen Mines, and Eyvind Earle alongside others.

One of the most popular recognizable works is concept art by Eyvind Earle, the art director for Disney’s animated film, Sleeping Beauty (1959). Earle took his inspiration directly from 15th Century French illuminated manuscripts. 

Another is Andy Warhol’s Index Book, which opens to a pop-up page depicting a medieval castle beset by a besieging army. 

It is a commentary about Warhol and his associates’ criticism summed up by the caption, “We’re attacked constantly,” according to Grollemond. 

“Enthusiasts of fairy tales might recognize the work of Howard Pyle and Arthur Rackham, two highly influential artists who helped bring medieval stories and images to droves of young readers in the 19th and 20th centuries,” she added. 

Other romantic photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron depicting friends and family dressed in medieval garb show them acting out scenes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s version of the King Arthur tales. Each brings their medieval characters to life and are capable of captivating modern audiences in the same way that they must have in the 19th Century, said Grollemond. 

Works for the exhibition were brought together by several LA-based institutions including the Getty Research Institute, LACMA, UCLA Libraries, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Hilbert Collection, the Disney Animation Research Library, and the Disney Archives.\

PARTING OF SIR LANCELOT and Queen Guinevere, 1875. Juliet Margaret Cameron  (British, India born, 1850 – 1879). Albumen silver print. Getty Museum.

The Getty Center and Getty Villa are a cultural and philanthropic institution dedicated to the presentation, conservation, and interpretation of the world’s artistic legacy. Through the collective and individual work of its constituent programs—Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Foundation, J. Paul Getty Museum, and Getty Research Institute—Getty pursues its mission in Los Angeles and throughout the world, serving both the general interested public and a wide range of professional communities to promote a vital civil society through an understanding of the visual arts. 

It was in 1974 that J. Paul Getty opened a museum in a re-creation of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum on his property in Malibu. By 1982, it became the richest museum in the world by inheriting $1.2 billion. By 1983 the museum acquired 144 illuminated medieval manuscripts from the financially struggling Ludwig Collection in Aachen. In 1997, the museum moved to the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. In 2006, the Malibu Museum was renovated and reopened as the “Getty Villa”.

“I hope that visitors to The Fantasy of the Middle Ages exhibition will take the opportunity to examine their ideas about the Middle Ages and how they have been formed over years of exposure to medieval fantasy,” Grollemond said. “[It is] unlike so many other historical periods, has a significant place in our imaginations that continues to influence the way we tell stories. Thinking critically about how those stories have been shaped over time can be revelatory about our modern society.”

Admission to the Getty Center and Getty Villa is free. Temporarily the Getty Center requires a timed-entry reservation. Parking fees apply. 

For more information about the Getty Center and Getty Villa including days/hours open and COVID-19 protocols, please visit www.getty.edu.