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A courtly grace

Exhibition illuminates the powerful nature of Flemish manuscript painting.

June 23, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Since the opening of the Getty Center in 1997, many have been disappointed with the faltering pace and erratic commitment of the museum's acquisitions for its permanent collection. One great work of art after another has landed in public and private collections elsewhere.

On the other, happier side of the museum ledger, there's been a welcome surprise. Temporary exhibitions, which didn't have much of a place in the Getty's old Malibu venue, have racked up an almost unbroken record as exceptional, rewarding events. Last week, the Getty opened its latest.

"Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe" is easily the most impressive manuscript show I've seen in 30 years of regular museum going. (Part of the reason: Major manuscript shows are rare as hens' teeth.) Manuscript painting from the region of modern-day Belgium and northern France constitutes one unmistakable strength of the Getty's collection, and asserting the Flemish art's triumph 500 years ago does not overstate the case. The material is fresh and challenging, the catalog breaks scholarly ground, and the presentation is accessible and provocative.

Simon Marmion, Gerard David and Simon Bening are not nearly as famous today as artists of the Italian Renaissance are. Northern European manuscript illumination in the years between 1470 and 1560 was a courtly art, often intended for private devotion, while painting in the south emerged as a powerful form of public display. But Marmion, David and Bening are among the stars of this show, and it's easy to see why. In small paintings tucked away in books, they made improbable miracles seem the most natural things in the world.

Take Bening's "The Denial of St. Peter," found in a prayer book made for a cardinal in Brandenburg, Germany. The book is a meditation on Christ's suffering and death, and many compositions among its 41 miniatures follow established patterns of the period. Yet Bening altered them to create intense dramatic narratives; their impact far exceeds their modest size.

An open fireplace lights the nocturnal interior in the biblical story of St. Peter's crisis of faith, in which he thrice denied the divinity of Jesus. Seven figures and a dog, a symbol of fidelity, are arrayed around it. The fire is a source of light, physical and spiritual, as well as a crackling central metaphor for emotional passion. That fervor is displayed in animated facial features and hand gestures -- not to mention brilliant stylistic fireworks.

For example, the foreground soldier is rendered in dark silhouette; next to him, but on the other side of the fire, a handmaiden is the most brightly lighted figure in the room. The stark juxtaposition of dark and light establishes a dynamic range of dramatic feeling.

Peter's ambivalence is suggested by the raking half-light that illuminates him at the side. He flings his arms wide. From there a procession of bodies and hands marches across the scene, which reads like a printed page -- from left to right.

Along the journey your eye passes across a distant open door, where the tiny figure of Jesus is glimpsed at the moment of his sentencing, when his fate is sealed. It ends in the upper right at the open beak of a squawking rooster, perched on a balcony. In a tiny space -- the painting is less than 7 by 5 inches -- Bening has registered with awesome skill the climactic moment of a disciple's denial of faith, before the cock crows.

The popular imagination associates manuscript painting with the Middle Ages, when the first great flowering of devotional books occurred. The invention of movable type in the mid-1400s, with its promise of eventual mass production, sealed the fate of costly, labor-intensive, one-of-a-kind books.

But the compelling Getty exhibition forges ahead into the Renaissance, showing that the form's demise wasn't quick. (Bening's Brandenburg prayer book was painted around the time Michelangelo was busy carving his marble sculptures of captives in Florence, Italy.) A manuscript's well-established status as a rare genre of luxury object was suddenly magnified, not diminished, by the arrival of Johann Gutenberg's printing press. The great age of illumination is shown to have ended with a bang, not a whimper.

Surprisingly, the proof of this power is in the margins. The decorated borders of the manuscript page tell an astounding story. As with all great Renaissance art, an emphasis on naturalism had arisen in manuscript painting by the end of the 15th century. Subtle lighting, psychological probity, optical atmosphere, palpable textures, illusionist space and other visually persuasive effects became the norm.

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