Fantasy of the Middle Ages

Reimagined by artists for centuries, explore the visual legacy of the Middle Ages, from the period itself to popular culture today.

Isfandiyar Attacks the Simurgh from an Armored Vehicle, Page from a Manuscript of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdawsi (circa 1485-1495) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Some of the most recognizable elements of fantasy (creatures, magic, castles, and quests) have roots in medieval illumination. In this page from the Shahnama (Book of Kings), legendary Iranian hero Isfandiyar rides with a sword drawn to attack the Simurgh, a fantastical great bird, who in this example was inspired by Chinese art of the period.

King Haldin Accusing the Sultan's Daughter Gracienne of Dishonorable Behavior (1464) by Lieven van Lathem and David AubertThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Medieval narratives of “history” and “fantasy” were intimately connected. In The Romance of Gillion de Trazegnies, Gillion’s travels are rooted in a real place (Egypt) and actual European architectural details, but the events are embellished. 

The margins also display a host of strange creatures, such as a harp-playing monkey . . .

. . . and a man-lion hybrid.

Sci Main Inc AlchemyLIFE Photo Collection

“History” and “fantasy” meld together again in this mezzotint based on an 18th-century painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. The setting incorporates aspects of Gothic architecture and the alchemist is dressed in medieval-inspired flowing robes. Here, in his quest to transform base metals into gold, the alchemist produces something unexpected . . .

. . . Instead of creating gold, he accidentally discovers phosphorus! While alchemists are often portrayed as magic-makers, Wright wanted to depict his figure as a scientist. This desire stemmed from Wright’s interest in the birth of chemistry as a modern science, which occurred in 1676 with the discovery of phosphorus.

LIFE Photo Collection

A Magical Middle Ages

“Long, long ago…” begin many fairy tales and films in modern franchises such as Star Wars. But when is “long ago”? In this illustration made about 400 years after the end of the Middle Ages, the artist Walter Crane conferred some magic on Sleeping Beauty and the evil fairy (who we know as Maleficent) by placing them in clothing that references the medieval past.

A Dragon (about 1270) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Dragons have long been a part of fantasy worlds and featured in many medieval manuscripts like this 13th-century bestiary. They often served as antagonistic creatures for heroes to defeat in spectacular fashion, as in the story of Sinbad from the medieval Middle-Eastern tales known as One Thousand and One Nights or in Tolkein’s The Hobbit.

Paris, Notre-Dame (1880s) by Léopold Louis MercierThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Even in architecture we see the use of medieval creatures to bestow an authentic look and feel on a building. Though the dragon-like chimeras (decorative cousins of gargoyle water spouts) from Notre-Dame in Paris are synonymous with the famous gothic cathedral, they were actually concocted in the 19th century to fit a more modern idea of what constituted a medieval style. 

The WitchesThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

As with Notre Dame’s gargoyles, witches evoke the Middle Ages. Yet, unlike dragons, witches are rarely seen in medieval visual arts. The appearance of witches in the work of artists from the 16th century onward eventually led to the modern image of the witch–with their hooked noses, pointed hats, and cauldrons–as the villain of fantasy tales.

While many aspects of fairy tales are not medieval, the written legend of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, the wizard Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table did indeed originate around the 12th century. The many adventures of Arthur and his court—like this manuscript focusing on the exploits of the knight Tristan—inspired centuries of creative retellings.

Tristan Rescuing King Arthur, Unknown, about 1320–1340, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere (1874)The J. Paul Getty Museum

One such retelling is Julia Margaret Cameron’s series of 19th-century photographs. Cameron was a close friend of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote a popular poem dedicated to King Arthur (“Idylls of the King”) in 1859. Inspired by Tennyson’s work, Cameron and other Pre-Raphaelite artists sought to revive the aesthetics of medieval art.

Glastonbury Abbey, Arches of the North Aisle (1858) by Roger FentonThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Part of this revival of medieval aesthetics involved photographing historical sites that were associated with King Arthur. In this photograph, Roger Fenton, who was primarily known for his war photography, captures the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, the supposed burial place of Arthur and his queen, Guinevere.

Shortly after these two photographs were taken, Mark Twain published “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” which details the adventures of Hank Morgan as he travels to Camelot after a blow to the head. In this still from the 1949 film, you can see the medieval inspired costuming and set background, complete with castle.

Rhonda Fleming In "A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court", Allan Grant, 1948-01, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Ernie Ford Taping Of "A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court", Allan Grant, 1960, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Ernie Ford Taping Of "A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court", Allan Grant, 1960, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Sculpture of King Arthur, TintagelOriginal Source: TINTAGEL CASTLE

The fascination with the legendary King Arthur lives on today. In Tintagel, a small village in Cornwall, stands a modern statue of a robed figure, meant to represent King Arthur and his famed sword Excalibur.  In his 11th-century chronicle History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth claims that Arthur was conceived in Tintagel.

The idea of the chivalric knight is central to more modern ideas of the Middle Ages. The armor of George Clifford, Third Earl of Cumberland, was part of the ensemble worn for battlefield use and tournaments, which involved jousting and melees.

Armor Garniture of George Clifford (1558–1605), Third Earl of Cumberland, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Armor Garniture of George Clifford (1558–1605), Third Earl of Cumberland, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Armor Garniture of George Clifford (1558–1605), Third Earl of Cumberland, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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The Tournament at Eglinton: March to the Tilting Ground (1839) by James Aikman, W. GordonGetty Research Institute

A revivalist project of a jousting tournament at Eglinton Castle took place in Scotland in 1839. Although the event attracted about 100,000 visitors and was praised for paying homage to chivalric ideals, it was heavily criticized for its cost.

Il Fior di Battaglia (about 1410) by Unknown, Fiore Furlan dei Liberi da PremariaccoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

A guide for students, the 15th-century Fior di Battaglia (Flower of Battle) is a how-to book for those who want to learn the art of combat. Written by the greatest fencing master of the late 1300s, Fiore Furlan dei Liberi da Premariacco, the book includes diagrams of several fighting techniques involving mounted combat and one-on-one combat on foot with a dagger, lance, axe. . .

Combat with Sword (about 1410) by Unknown and Fiore Furlan dei Liberi da PremariaccoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

. . . and sword. Nicolò III d’Este, who ruled Ferrara, Italy in the early 15th century, ordered three copies of this manual, including the one seen here. As the instruction of young noblemen included learning how to fight, this book was likely important in helping him raise his three sons. 

Combat with Pollaxe, Fiore Furlan dei Liberi da Premariacco, about 1410, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Combat with Sword, Fiore Furlan dei Liberi da Premariacco, about 1410, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Combat with Pollaxe, Fiore Furlan dei Liberi da Premariacco, about 1410, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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The interest in the Fior di Battaglia lives on today. A specialist community in San Diego—the Schola San Marco—have rehabilitated the forms of medieval combat depicted in the book. In this video, Brian Stokes, a medieval martial arts master from the group, demonstrates his passion for the manuscript, as well as some reenactments.

Medieval combat is not the only aspect of the Middle Ages that has caught people’s attention over the centuries. Many designers in the 19th and early-20th centuries used medieval and Renaissance clothing as inspiration for their designs. In this dress, Paul Poiret combined several historical styles which reflected his interests.

Dress, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Dress, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Dress, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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David Bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (about 1480–1490) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This late-15th-century manuscript depicting scenes related to the life of Christ includes many images with clothing that resemble Poiret’s simple dress. This image of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem depicts several figures wearing tunic-like outfits with loose silhouettes.

David Bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, Unknown, about 1480–1490, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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The Middle Ages on Location

Representations of the Middle Ages in film and TV are perhaps the most recognizable way we interact with medieval culture. An example is Game of Thrones (2011–2019), which filmed in towns (like the fortress city of Dubrovnik), cathedrals, and on bridges and roads across Europe and North Africa to bring the lands of Westeros and Essos to life.

Dubrovnik, Croatia. Game of Thrones filming location, Google Maps

Dubrovnik, Croatia. Game of Thrones filming location, Google Maps

While Mont Saint-Michel has served as a filming location for several movies, it may be most recognizable as the inspiration for Rapunzel’s kingdom in Disney’s Tangled. It rises from the water, just as Rapunzel’s castle does in the animated film. Basing Tangled’s fictional kingdom on an actual place lends some real-life magic to the movie.

Mont Saint-Michel, France (inspiration for Rapunzel’s castle/city in Tangled), Google Maps

Perhaps the most famous medieval-inspired historical landmark is Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. Begun in 1869, its soaring towers capture the appeal of reimagining the Middle Ages. Its fairy tale style influenced the design of Cinderella’s castle in the animated movie, and at both Disneyland in Los Angeles, California and Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany (inspiration for Disney’s castle), Google Maps

Ephemera inspired by the Middle Ages (2021-07) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

TV and film only represent a few of the ways that the medieval period has been reimagined in modern culture. In this image, a display of objects—from manga to Magic: The Gathering cards, and Barbie dolls to shadow puppets—shows just how many aspects of popular culture contain visual references to the medieval era. 

Princess Garnet © LaChanda Gatson (Producer and Stylist) and CreativeSoul Photography (Photography) (2020)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The Evolution of the Middle Ages

Modern creators are shaking the outdated view of the Middle Ages as completely white, Christian, and European. In their Princess Series, LaChanda Gatson and CreativeSoul Photography reimagine Black girls as iconic Disney princesses including Snow White and Ariel. Creative projects like this provide a wider-ranging vision of the Middle Ages that is equitable for those in the present.

Credits: Story

© 2022 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

For more resources:
The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey through Imaginary Medieval Worlds. (Getty Publications, 2022)

Curating Global Medievalisms. The Multicultural Middle Ages Podcast.

Andrew Albin, Mary C. Erler, Thomas O’Donnell, Nicholas Paul, and Nina Rowe. Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

Jes Battis, Thinking Queerly: Medievalism, Wizardry, and Neurodiversity in Young Adult Texts. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2021

Tison Pugh and Susan Aronstein, eds. The United States of Medievalism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021.

Helen Young, ed. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. New York and London: Routledge, 2015.

To cite this exhibition, please use: " Fantasy of the Middle Ages" published online in 2022 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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