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ART REVIEW

An Illustrated Problem

Getty showcase of queen's famous prayerbook is a once-in-a-lifetime experience--if you're lucky enough to get in.

April 11, 1998|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

"Prayerbook for a Queen: The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux" is a lovely little exhibition that lays out in public for the very first time a legendary manuscript that has enchanted viewers ever since its diminutive pages were painted nearly 700 years ago.

But, don't get too excited. The odds are against your having a chance to examine for yourself this book's captivating charms. At least, not without extraordinary luck or unusual pluck.

This is the first special exhibition to arrive at the J. Paul Getty Museum at Brentwood's new hilltop Getty Center since the inaugural shows, and it's a suitably rare event--just the sort of small gem we'd hoped for from an institution with exceptional resources. You're in for a treat that comes once in a lifetime.

If, that is, you're fortunate enough to already hold a parking reservation for a date before the show closes on July 5 (the Getty's parking lot is virtually booked solid through October). Or, if you're willing and able to risk disappointment, which means waiting in long lines after arriving by public transportation without any guarantee of museum entry. (Hint: Midweek, late afternoon, is your best bet for successfully storming the mountain fortress.)

The tiny late-Gothic prayerbook on display is among the greatest treasures of the Cloisters, the outpost for medieval art operated by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it's been housed since 1954. Its intimate illuminations were meant to be seen by a single person cradling the book in her hands.

Public display thus poses obvious problems. Typically, only two painted vellum pages in a bound manuscript can be shown at one time. Because this book's leaves were recently removed from its binding, however, in order to photograph each sheet for the production of a facsimile edition, the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux can temporarily be exhibited more fully than ever before.

Nearly 60 pages are on view at the Getty, rather than just two, and among them are two dozen of the full-scale illuminations that are the book's chief glory. They have the look of sculptural reliefs, thanks to grisaille compositions in a rich array of grayish tints made from sooty carbon mixed with water and gum binder. To underscore the visual relationship to sculpture, the Cloisters also loaned a gilded alabaster carving of the Madonna and Child, thought to have been commissioned for a convent by Jeanne d'Evreux.

The exhibition, organized by the Met's Barbara Drake Boehm and the Getty's Thomas Kren, is small because the book is small--barely 3 1/2 inches high and 2 1/2 inches wide. Miraculously painted by the influential miniaturist Jean Pucelle (d. 1334), it opens with a calendar to mark Christian feast days.

Next come the Hours of the Virgin, prayers suitable for private devotion at specific times of day (hence, "Hours"), in which scenes from the Christmas story are paired with those of Easter. Then come the Hours of Saint Louis, eight prayer services decorated with scenes of the crusader's life of charity. A section of psalms devoted to penitence is introduced by a magnificent little painting of Christ enthroned in heaven, surrounded by symbols for the evangelists.

As might be expected from a Book of Hours, time is central to its visual program. Temporal piety leading to eternal salvation is its Christian subtext, which Pucelle provocatively illuminates from a variety of angles. Consider the lush image of Christ enthroned, which pictures the second coming at "the end of time."

Likewise, the litany of saints' days in the opening calendar embeds Christian ritual within nature's cyclical seasons. Each month is accompanied by two little paintings at the bottom of the page. One shows an activity associated with the month--cutting wheat in July, stomping grapes in September--the other displays its zodiac sign. Time is clocked according to familiar pairs of pagan and secular motifs for heaven and earth, each rendered with a lively and perceptive realism.

The Hours of the Virgin raise the level of complexity--sometimes precipitously. These paired images simultaneously chronicle the birth and death of Jesus, the alpha and the omega echoing across a human lifespan.

In the most riveting pair on view, Jesus' betrayal to the Roman soldiers by Judas is opposite the annunciation by Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. A sign for impending death is matched by one for impending birth.

Amazingly, the two pictures are also formally fused. The swooning, S-curve poses of both Mother and Son are rendered as mirror images on facing pages. Mentally close the book, and imagine the two figures becoming one.

The distinct formal capacities of a book are here used to summon the mystical instantiation of Christ and to evoke the Virgin as queen of heaven. For Jeanne d'Evreux, the queen of France to whom the devotional tome was given by Charles IV, its subtle linkages among humanity, divinity and royalty must have been inescapable.

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