"Gift giving was an important aspect of Christian life in the Middle Ages, especially giving what you had to those less fortunate,” says Christine Sciacca, curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum and curator of the newly opened exhibition “Give and Ye Shall Receive: Gift Giving in the Middle Ages.”
In addition to images that depict models of giving that appear in devotional texts, the exhibition, which runs until March 15, features depictions of philanthropic and strategic giving in medieval society and luxury manuscripts commissioned as gifts.
All in all, the exhibition showcases 20 works from the museum’s manuscripts collection, as well as several items loaned from other museums and private collections. Leading a public tour of the exhibition that’s tucked away in a small, softly-lit alcove at the Getty, Sciacca describes the culture of Medieval gift giving as a method of connecting gifter and giftee. The act of presenting someone with a gift had broad implications as the gift defined and cemented relationships between political rulers, family and friends, acquaintances and strangers and God and church.
Sciacca stops at a large illuminated page from an extremely large choir book from the early 1400s. Here, the allegorical figure of Caritas (Charity) is a lavishly-dressed noblewoman who holds a crucifix in one hand and gives a gold coin to a poor man with the other. The scroll above her reads in Latin “Whoever has me [Charity] covers a multitude of sins.” Gold lines connect the wounds of Christ on the cross with Caritas’ heart and the beggar.
This spiritual linkage — from Christ to Caritas to the poor — reflects an important Christian duty that also promised rewards to those who practiced charity. “The act of giving was not entirely selfless, you were hoping for some blessing,” says Sciacca. “The idea was ‘What you give will come back to you in return.’”
Other images of Christian models of charity and compassion at the exhibition include: Saint Martin Dividing His Cloak (about 1260 AD), showing the Roman soldier dividing his red, ermine-lined cloak with his sword and giving half of it to a beggar freezing in the winter cold. Likewise, St. Nicolas is depicted in an Italian 1200s choirbook giving coins through a window of a house to a man with two young daughters.
Perhaps the most famous example of gift givers for Christians are the Magi, the three wise men who traveled far to visit Jesus as a child, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh. A lovely image from an Italian choirbook (1470s) shows the three men presenting their gifts to Christ, who holds one gift almost like a rattle in one hand and offers a blessing upon the Magi with the other, reiterating the theme of reciprocity. The giver receives, and the receiver gives.
Likewise, in the Middle Ages, books were expensive, precious commodities and giving a book as a gift was a remarkable act of generosity that did not go unrewarded. Wealthy patrons often commissioned books to be given to a local monastery, and in gratitude, the monks would “give it back” by including their benefactor in their daily prayers. “These were books that were well-used and passed down for generations in perpetuity,” says Sciacca.
Often, when books were passed down — or re-gifted? — new owners would add pages, illuminations and other personalized touches. Rudolf von Em’s World Chronicle illumination’s multiple owners added portraits, coat of arms, mottos and other family symbols to mark the manuscript, adding to the volume’s history and heritage.
Still other books were presented from one secular ruler to another, given from parent to child, or from husband to wife. The medieval practice of commissioning manuscripts on the occasion of marriage was very common.
All in all, modern day customs of gift giving have their origins in practices from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, explains Sciacca, who adds that our Christmas tradition of present exchange is only a recent practice.
“In the Middle Ages and in many European cultures today, the day for actual gift giving was on the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, which was often referred to as ‘Little Christmas,’” says Sciacca. New Year’s Day and the Feast Day of St. Nicholas (the precursor to the Santa Claus personae of the 20th century) were also considered days to give presents and gifts.