The J. Paul Getty Museum has ushered in the Easter season with a gem of an exhibition, "The Passion of Christ in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts," which compresses a vast swath of art history and religious literature into one small room. All the drama, terror, pain and grief of Christ's last days are spelled out in minutely detailed artworks designed as private devotional objects.
As is often the case with public displays of the Getty's manuscripts, the centerpiece of the current show is a single book, opened to one tiny painting and a facing page of text. This time it's a prayer book commissioned about 1530 by Albrecht of Brandenburg, archbishop of Mainz, from Flemish illuminator Simon Bening.
With his choice of 29 illuminations of the Passion, curator Eric Inglis decided to open the book to the scene of Christ's flagellation, near the center of the story. "This painting sums up all the crucial elements in the Passion cycle," Inglis said, noting Bening's expressive skill in depicting an intensely human Christ whose suffering and death were interpreted as a sacrifice to redeem humankind.
Masterpieces of late medieval painting are so rare and Bening's talent is so fine that this page alone would merit a trip to the Getty, but visitors don't have to imagine what artistic wonders--and emotional horrors--lie before and after the flagellation.
For the first time since the museum acquired the manuscript, in 1983, all of Bening's illuminations of the Passion are on view, in transparencies mounted on a shelf-like structure around three walls of the gallery. Related manuscripts dating back to the 11th Century and a set of 12 Limoges enamel plaques made about 1530 provide an aesthetic context for Bening's work along with opportunities to compare various artists' interpretations of the Passion of Christ.
Bening appears to have little competition, however. The Brandenburg prayer book is the culmination of several centuries of devotional art. As Inglis points out, Bening took what was usually portrayed as a seven-scene sequence and expanded it four-fold.
Along with predictable subjects--including Christ's entry into Jerusalem, his betrayal, crucifixion and burial--Bening depicted not one but four trial scenes. He also lavished attention on the apostles and their failings under stress.
Instead of the stiff, symbolic characters typical of earlier artists, Bening painted believable figures with expressive faces. You can see Christ's attitude change from a wrenching struggle to calm acceptance of his fate. He and the other characters move through three-dimensional landscapes and buildings in a Northern European setting, devised to make the story real to readers, Inglis said. When Bening positioned Christ so that he looks directly at readers, he implied "you are there," the curator said.
Bening reached the pinnacle of his illustrative power in several vividly colored nocturnal scenes. Torches blazing against a deep-blue sky form a compelling backdrop for the drama of Christ's betrayal and arrest.
The point of such artworks was to tell the familiar tale so persuasively that a reader would establish a personal relationship with Christ and draw spiritual strength from his trials. Books were particularly useful in this quest because tension builds as the narrative proceeds. "Turning page after glorious page had a cumulative effect," Inglis said.
The exhibition will continue until July 5, but the Passion theme will linger in the museum. Visitors emerging from the darkened manuscripts gallery only have to look across the hall at James Ensor's late 19th-Century painting, "Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889," to find evidence of this.
The contrast in style between Bening's precisely rendered idealism and Ensor's expressionistic cynicism could hardly be more abrupt, but the theme runs absolutely true.
* Public gallery talks on "The Passion of Christ" will be offered on Sunday and on May 17 and 31 at 1 p.m.; April 23, 29 and May 7, 14 at 3 p.m. Spanish-language talks will be given on Saturday and on May 16 and June 20 at 3 p.m. Parking reservations are required: (310) 458-2003.