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Checkmate! Medieval People at Play

Exhibition of Medieval Manuscripts

When you think about the medieval era, what comes to mind? Perhaps looming castles, gallant knights, damsels in distress, or praying monks? These aspects of life in the Middle Ages are only part of the picture. Vibrant and sophisticated cultures flourished everywhere, and the people who lived during this period, from the 5th to the 15th century, found time for amusement in the margins of their lives and their manuscripts. Surprisingly, playful images are most often found in religious books, where artists tended to populate the margins with humorous, even outrageous or sacrilegious imagery.

The medieval mind loved to juxtapose the profound and the frivolous. Sometimes the artist’s playfulness had a serious intent: for example, to help readers remember a prayer or a passage from the Gospels. But often the artists were simply having fun, creating delightfully whimsical images for the entertainment of the reader. In these pages, praying monks become playing monks, knights battle with dice instead of swords, children shirk their winter duties to lob snowballs at each other, and damsels forget their distress and go out for an afternoon of butterfly hunting. Through these images, this exhibition explores a sense of whimsy and fun that is uniquely medieval, yet remarkably relevant to us today.