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Manuscripts that illuminate their time

By displaying detached pages of medieval and Renaissance prayer books, the Getty allows a rare look at the form.

October 21, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

As the tumult of controversy over financial practices and antiquities purchases swirls around the Getty Center, the galleries of its museum offer a place of refuge. Think of them as the eye of the hurricane -- the still, calm space where the sun is shining and the sky is blue.

Two exhibitions that focus on medieval and Renaissance manuscripts opened this week, and both are absorbing, smartly conceived and beautifully executed. They include some of the greatest European painting of their time. Manuscript illumination is one of the chief strengths of the Getty Museum's permanent collection, and shows like these build on that intensity.

One show is a reconstituted 1997 exhibition from New York's Morgan Library, the nation's premier repository for manuscripts, which has been closed for several years during a building renovation and expansion. (It will reopen in 2006.) The other is the fruit of a joint project between the Getty and London's Victoria & Albert Museum, a collaboration that partly reconstructs the pages of a remarkable handmade prayer book that was taken apart and dispersed at the end of the 17th century.

"A Masterpiece Reconstructed: The Hours of Louis XII" brings together 15 of 16 known images from a book thought to have been made in 1498-99 by the court painter Jean Bourdichon, as a coronation present for the French king. (The missing 16th image is in the Wildenstein Collection at Paris' Marmottan Museum, which unfortunately does not lend, while another 20 illuminations thought to have been included in the original book remain lost.) Usually, manuscript exhibitions can show only one or two paintings from the facing pages of an open book; by contrast, the reunion of these 15 detached pages offers an exceptional opportunity to explore almost half of the contents of Louis XII's prayer book.

Framed and hanging on the walls of the museum's manuscript gallery, the 15 paintings are installed in sequence around the room. Cases in the center feature contextual material, such as the Getty's magnificent "Hours of Simon de Varie," illuminated by the supremely gifted Frenchman Jean Fouquet about 40 years before Louis' book.

Fouquet was Bourdichon's teacher. His small book is opened to the delicate and moving frontispiece, which shows Simon de Varie kneeling in prayer at the right, while facing a devotional image of the Virgin and Child enthroned at the left. Bourdichon's prayer book begins in a similar manner, with Louis surrounded by patron saints and on his knees wearing gilded armor -- dressed as a warrior for Christ. The devotional image that he faced is among those sheets that disappeared 300 years ago, when the book was taken apart.

If Bourdichon is not Fouquet's equal as a painter of tender emotion, his work is nonetheless remarkable -- especially in the way light is used as an actor in the narrative. Among the book's most remarkable images is "The Nativity," in which a monumental figure of Mary, pushed close to the foreground to dominate the scene, is surrounded by Joseph, the child, an ox and a donkey, while shepherds peek into the stable through a window at the back.

Three light sources from three different sides illuminate Mary's blue-robed figure. Behind her, Joseph's lantern casts its luminosity upon her back. In front, the infant in the manger glows within radiant beams of gold, which shower the front of his mother's body. From above, golden rays pour down into the nighttime chamber. Together the luminous Mary is molded from light cast by a trinity -- an earthly father, son and holy spirit -- a marvelously inventive gloss on a traditional theme.

Three of the Bourdichon miniatures were acquired by the Getty two years ago, including Louis at prayer and the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple. The third painting, which is the subject of a separate essay in the fine catalog by the show's organizer, Getty curator Thomas Kren, is the most surprising of all. It shows nude and luxurious Bathsheba bathing, while King David peers down on her from a castle window.

This amazing scene serves two functions. First, it introduces the biblical story, in which David's adultery with Bathsheba and indirect murder of her husband become quintessential examples of the horrors of earthly sin and the struggle for eventual forgiveness. Although the Bible does not portray Bathsheba as a temptress, Bourdichon renders her as a cross between blond bombshell and flirtatious coquette.

As if the sensuous fullness of her form were not enough, her fecundity is announced in the visual center of the picture, where a tree in the garden is laden with ripe fruit. Flecks of gold paint render the flowing blond hair that frames Bathsheba's body, and silver paint (now oxidized and blackened) creates the water's surface shimmer around her voluptuous hips. Both use light's reflective qualities to sanctify her form and draw the eye.

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