The medieval art that inspired ‘Game of Thrones’ at the Getty

Call it art history meets HBO.

Towering castles, knights on horseback, wizards in flowing robes and roaring long-necked dragons fill the galleries of the Getty Center this summer. A new exhibition delves into the intersection of medieval life and pop culture, showcasing ancient artifacts from the Middle Ages that have inspired decades of literature, television, animation and action films alongside cultural depictions pop of the time.

Items on display in “The Fantasy of the Middle Ages” — from the Getty’s permanent collection as well as loans from various California collections — include paintings and prints, photographs, and handmade books as early as the 14th century. One, a tiny 15th-century prayer book, is bound in leather with egg-tempera paint and touches of gold leaf on parchment. Also on display are costume and background studies from films such as Disney’s 1959’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’, as well as the huge book of props that opened by Disney 1963 film “The sword in the stone”. The hand-painted resin object, with leather clasps and a metal lock resembling a diary, was shown in the film resting on a velvet cover, its large pages slowly turning in sync with the voiceover narrator’s music to start the story.

The exhibit grew out of a popular social media campaign launched by the museum in 2014 called “Getty of Thrones.” The campaign appeared first on Tumblr, then on Instagram; Getty curators have recapped episodes of the TV series “Game of Thrones” using footage from the museum’s collection. Continue in this participatory DIY spirit, a section of the exhibit includes personal items on loan from Getty staff members. The toys, DVDs, replica swords, hats and Halloween costumes on display – including Morgan le Fay and Merlin Ken and Barbie dolls, Beanie Babies dragon, Dungeons & Dragons figures and HeroQuest board game – illustrate at how far the realms of pop culture and consumerism reached our passion for medieval times.

“People were really into it and they started asking us a lot of questions,” exhibition co-curator Larisa Grollemond says of the “Getty of Thrones” campaign. “They wanted to know, ‘What’s real in this? What is based in the story? Is there anything from the Middle Ages that stands out in “Game of Thrones”? »

The answer is more nuanced than one might expect, Grollemond said. Much of what we think we know about the Middle Ages is based on telling stories over the centuries, as opposed to actual history. It’s a long line of self-referential and ever-changing lore, some of it precise and most peppered with fantasy tropes, such as fairies, goblins, and other magical creatures.

The exposition is less about the individual connections between a particular object and a specific movie or TV show, Grollemond says, and more on “how these visual features of the Middle Ages are transmitted, reworked, and translated over time in our culture and how they morph into pop culture.”

“Game of Thrones” — a show that draws from a myriad of medieval story sources — reflects a broad prism of this layering.

“It tries to appear historically accurate,” Grollemond says of the show, “in that it uses historic locations, some of the costumes are based on medieval examples, they often use medieval art in the backgrounds of the sets – but it’s a fancy job.”

Here’s what Grollemond had to say about several elements of the exhibit that have provided this narrative “connective tissue” across the centuries, fueling our fascination with life in the Middle Ages.

“Stairway to the Church of Christ” (1879)

(Museums of Fine Arts of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts)

This is a 19th century print of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. If you’re a “Harry Potter” fan, you might recognize it as one of the entrances to Hogwarts. It probably wasn’t something the filmmakers looked at directly. We have it in the show to represent the long history of recording these medieval spaces in visual media. One of the particularly interesting things about contemporary medievalism is that movies and TV shows often film real medieval artwork or in real medieval locations. And that’s especially true for something like “Harry Potter” – I think JK Rowling describes Hogwarts in the book as a giant castle with a series of towers and turrets, that’s all. So when it comes time to bring Hogwarts to life, the Gothic architecture of late medieval England becomes the architectural fabric of the film series.

Colored drawing of a hilltop castle that would become Disney's Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Eyvind Earle’s concept art for Walt Disney Productions’ 1959 film ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

(©Disney Enterprises Inc.)

This is directly inspired by medieval art. This is a concept study for Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” background. The artist, Eyvind Earle, did all the sets for the film. We know that he was interested in the illumination of medieval manuscripts. It really has the kind of cadence of medieval art – the flatness, stylized vegetation and large blocks of color that characterized 15th-century French illumination. There is the suggestion of a landscape in the background, but it looks fantastic, unreal, in a way. This image is from a 15th century French manuscript, which we know he probably looked at quite closely.

Costume sketch of a woman in a long dress with cape.

Costume study for the character of Morgan le Fay in the 1948 film ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’.

(Museum Associates/LACMA)

This is a costume study for the character of Morgan le Fay in the 1948 film “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”. He is a major character in Arthur’s stories, a witch or witch figure. What’s so interesting about this study is that it reads almost like a 1930s or 1940s women’s fashion magazine – there are elements that reference medieval costume, or what has come to be known as the name of medieval costume, such as a flowing cape or detailed embroidery. But the off-the-shoulder neckline is something you wouldn’t see in a medieval costume or a fancy headpiece. It reads medieval sufficient to a 20th century audience, but is also inspired by contemporary American fashion. It testifies to the flexibility of the Middle Ages in the minds of modern creators, but also, it is another stage in the evolution of the medieval – each new iteration, each new narrative, has the mark of the time and place where it has been created. .

A page from an illuminated manuscript.

A 14th century manuscript “Tristan Saves King Arthur” (1320-1340).

(Getty Museum)

This manuscript from our collection tells the story of the Knight of the Round Table, Tristan. I’ve always compared the Arthur universe to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in that there’s a core group of characters and they all get their ramifications, in terms of literary and cinematic treatment, later on. But this manuscript is dedicated to Tristan. It’s from France and it’s a 14th century copy of the novel of the good knight Tristan. Each manuscript is a unique work of art. There are, in some cases, multiple copies of the same story, but none are exactly the same because you get a different artist making the images, a different scribe writing the text, and so each surviving medieval manuscript is unique. example.

A colorful illustration of a knight on horseback fighting a winged dragon.

“St. George and the Dragon”, 1450-1455, a prayer book.

(Getty Museum)

It’s a manuscript from our collection, a little prayer book. I chose it because it’s so much how we think of the Middle Ages as a colorful and dramatic place. The scene is St. George slaying the dragon, but he is dressed as this heroic knight rescuing this damsel dressed as one would expect a princess to be dressed. The castle in the background looks a lot like “Cinderella” castle or “Sleeping Beauty” castle. It is part of this idea of ​​the Middle Ages, which we have received but which is already beginning to be present in the art of the Middle Ages. This kind of romantic idea of ​​the Middle Ages is something that comes out in movies and TV, especially from the 1990s – like “First Knight” with Sean Connery. It’s a story of Arthur, a retelling of this legend, presenting the Middle Ages as this very nostalgic and romantic place full of heroic knights and damsels in distress.

An illustration of a knight in a robe on horseback.

A page from Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Nottinghamshire (1883).

(Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA)

Robin Hood is a story that has been passed down from medieval literature, then repackaged, re-popularized, for new audiences. This is an illustrated version by Howard Pyle, which dates to the early 20th century. It is becoming very popular with children in particular. It kind of reworks medieval history, and centuries of storytelling, putting it together with these great illustrations and simplifying the language. And this is igniting a new popularity for these medieval tales among children in the early 20th century. It’s this version of the story that cements the character of Robin Hood and the characters around him for a new generation that then takes this idea and repackages it as a Disney story. And we still have so many versions of Robin Hood in modern cinema.

“The Fantasy of the Middle Ages”

Where: The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles

When: 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Ends September 11.

Cost: Free on reservation


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