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LA museum illustrates death in Middle Ages

LOS ANGELES -- Death and taxes may both be inevitable in this modern-day world of ours, yet it seems only death has had the ability to inspire great art in people since at least Medieval times.

So much so that life's final curtain call, as seen through the brushes and pens of artists of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, is the subject of the J. Paul Getty Museum's latest exhibition, “Heaven, Hell and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages.”

With paintings, drawings, parchment illustrations and works on stained glass, each of them intricately detailed and most of them stunningly colorful, the exhibition takes visitors on a tour of the final days of existence and straight into the afterlife.

It opened last week in a dimly lit gallery that, while the space was darkened mainly to protect the priceless and fragile parchment works, also manages to evoke through its muted lighting a quiet, contemplative space for reflecting on the end of life's existence.

It will remain there through Aug. 12, in the sprawling museum nestled in the hills above Los Angeles.

The exhibition's creation was the brainchild of guest curator Martin Schwarz, who although just 26 is fascinated both by death and how its representation in films, books and other modern media appears so strongly influenced by the European artists of 500 to 700 years ago.

It was during the Middle Ages that those artists, perhaps influenced by the relatively short life spans of a period marked by disease, wars and terrifyingly high child mortality rates, really began to envision what it was like to confront death at almost any moment, says Schwarz.

What's more, their work, often used to illustrate Biblical and other stories that had been handed down through the centuries, began to take on a look that continues to this day in the way devils, vampires, angels and other such creatures are portrayed.

“If you think about the imagination of Heaven and Hell in movies and popular culture and books and so forth, very much these ideas go back to the Middle Ages,” Schwarz said recently by phone from Chicago, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in art history at the University of Chicago. “Everybody who thinks about Hell today knows about demons, and when we see them we identify them very easily because we know what they look like from these artists.”

In the 15th century book “The Visions of the Knight Tondal,” for example, French artist Simon Marmion painted Hell pretty much as it is represented today: as a big, red, blast-furnace-like place filled with familiar demons and tortured souls.

Among those souls, in both Marmion's and other artists' works, are a fair share of priests and nuns who are being tormented for eternity for failing to maintain their chastity vows during their lifetimes.

“That's among my favorites,” said Elizabeth Morrison, the museum's senior curator of manuscripts, as she pointed out a collection of beleaguered priests and nuns. She noted it is a reminder that today's priestly sex scandals are nothing new.

As for Death himself, in an illustration for the prayer book “Denise Poncher Before Death,” he also appears much as he does today. He's a big, boney fellow covered in worms and armed with his trademark scythe.

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