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Getty Museum Uses ‘Game of Thrones’ to Showcase Medieval Art Collection

Curators at L.A.’s Getty Center are using their archives of artwork, especially pieces depicting violence, to recap HBO’s fantasy series in a unique way

There is an image that appears in several medieval texts ranging from Arthurian romance to Italian philosophy. It depicts Madam Fortune turning a wheel with four people on it — a king sits atop the wheel, a peasant is being dragged underneath, a courtier is rising up to the top of the wheel, and a noble is being pulled from the top down to the bottom. Fortune is turning the wheel constantly, dragging its inhabitants in and out of power and servitude.

It is a wheel that Queen Daenerys Targaryen knows all too well.

“They’re all just spokes on a wheel,” she said to Tyrion last season on “Game of Thrones.” “This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”

Though the tale of Westeros is unmistakably a fantasy, “Game of Thrones” and “A Song of Ice and Fire” draw much of their broad themes and aesthetics from medieval art and culture.

That’s why the Getty Center in Los Angeles has decided to use the show as an opportunity to showcase its collection of paintings and illuminations from the Middle Ages. For the past three seasons, curators at the Getty have gone through thousands of pieces in their archives and posted a collage of medieval artwork on their Tumblr page that best recap each week’s episode.

The project is spearheaded by Bryan Keene, an assistant curator at the Getty’s Department of Manuscripts and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. Every week, he watches each new “Game of Thrones” episode two or three times and takes notes on the most important images from each scene of the show. Then he breaks it down into key words and themes like dragons, battles — or in the case of this week’s episode — executions.

The most common theme, however, is violence. Whether the subject matter is the Passion of the Christ or the sort of grisly torture devices that Ramsay Bolton would love to have in his basement, there’s a lot of gore to be found in the Getty’s collection. Every “Game of Thrones” episode comes with a foreboding tone, as if Death itself is waiting to reappear at any given time. In a way, the series has captured a sense of what it was like to live in the unstable world of the Middle Ages.

“Medieval art includes a great deal of violence because the medieval world was extremely violent,” Keene said. “We can think about war, death, pestilence, famine — incidentally the traditional names of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse — and how these torments placed mortality at the forefront of everyone’s mind in the Middle Ages.”

Keene notes that few of the illuminations match up as perfectly with the series as the Wheel of Fortune. In last week’s recap, he used an image of a woman being attacked by a dog to symbolize Ramsay killing his stepmother with his hunting dogs. The image was from one of the short stories by medieval Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, depicting a woman being punished in Hell by having her body ripped apart by hunting dogs. Her crime? Rejecting the advances of a lover. Hey, it was the 14th century.

Keene also notes that like Westeros, clashes between different religions were a common element of medieval history. We’ve seen the High Sparrow knock Cersei down a peg, Melisandre bring Jon back to life in the name of R’hllor, and Arya forsake her entire identity to serve the Many-Faced God. In the same way, different religions were shaping Europe in the Middle Ages all the time.

“Whenever characters on ‘Game of Thrones’ speak of the old gods and the new, I am reminded of the development and the complexities of medieval world religions,” Keene said. “for example, how various medieval Christian communities interacted with each other and with other faith groups, like Jews and Muslims.”

This week’s recap includes two Christian images alongside each other. One is an image of the resurrected Christ. The other is a picture of Judas being hung by demons from hell to symbolize his suicide after betraying Jesus. Jon Snow is the Christ figure returning from the dead, and Olly is the traitor being punished with the noose.

It’s a clever analogy, but Keene has an even better one. One of his favorite sources of art for the recaps is the “World Chronicle,” a 13th century German tome by poet Rudolf von Ems. Keene says the epic has over 400 illuminations ranging from historical events to retellings of Hebrew tales. One of those illuminations shows the corrupt prince Evilmerodach becoming King of Babylon by killing his father, Nebuchadnezzar. The father’s body is chopped into pieces as crows descend for a piece of the rendered flesh.

A feast for crows, if you will.

Check out more of the Getty’s “Game of Thrones” recaps on Tumblr.