"Medieval Treasures From the Cleveland Museum of Art" is a highlights-only trip that begins in the 3rd century, just before the Roman Empire officially recognized Christianity, and ends in the 16th, when the Protestant Reformation did its best to put an end to religious imagery.
Straightforwardly installed -- in loose chronological order -- at the J. Paul Getty Museum, this fascinating exhibition of about 120 wildly diverse objects takes visitors on a whirlwind tour that crisscrosses Europe, making stops in what are now France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, England and the Netherlands (before they were nations) and popping into Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey), Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Sirmium (in what is now Serbia).
It's easy to get lost in the cornucopia of wonders, savoring the details of carved marble, ivory and wood sculptures; the exquisite tints of masterfully painted altarpieces; the mind-boggling radiance of illuminated manuscripts; the religious splendor of jewel-studded crosses; and the functional elegance of etched silver chalices, inlaid garment clasps and cast bronze lamps. If amazement is what you want from an exhibition, this one serves it up in abundance.
If you want more than that -- and believe that museum exhibitions are not merely displays of spectacular treasures or dazzling loot -- then you're really in for a treat. This speedy journey through 14 centuries -- at the rate of about one object per decade -- invites visitors to compare and contrast artifacts from various times and places with similar objects from different times and places.
With great efficiency, "Medieval Treasures" shows how malleable Christianity was, how various peoples adapted its forms and stories to fit their own needs and traditions. As you move through the three large galleries, you see one of the world's great religions evolve -- in a manner similar to that of the creatures and species described by Darwin in his account of evolution.
It all starts with a story. Just inside the show's entrance, four fantastic marble sculptures, each about 2 feet tall or long, illustrate the Old Testament parable of the prophet Jonah. After disobeying the Lord, Jonah was tossed from a ship and swallowed by a sea monster, in whose belly he prayed for three days before being spit up and cast ashore.
The first figurine shows Jonah's legs disappearing -- as gracefully as an Olympic diver's -- into the mouth of a dog-headed beast with the body of a serpent. The second depicts Jonah flying -- Superman-style -- out of the monster's mouth.
The third and fourth pieces portray the prophet respectively resting in the shade of a vine and pleading, hands open and eyes raised, with his God. Both echo the format of statuary from classical antiquity. All four strive for the naturalism that characterized late Roman art, bringing down-to-earthness to miraculous events while using the drama of pagan myths to energize Christian narratives.
Similarly, a silver spoon in a nearby vitrine depicts a nude athlete posing victoriously. An inscription identifies him as St. Paul, who described himself as an "athlete of Christ" in his first letter to the Corinthians. The text may have been added after the figure was etched. In any case, the relationship between the classically secular subject and the inscription identifying the apostle shows how early Christianity grafted itself onto established styles, gaining a toehold in cultures it was about to displace.
The naturalism of classical antiquity is replaced by the abstract stylization of the next group of works, many of which were made in Constantinople and most of which date from the 5th to the 12th centuries, when the nerve center of Christianity shifted to the Byzantine Empire.
The earliest works from this period feature mythological creatures. A satyr and maenad appear in a beautifully stylized tapestry, and silver and bronze lamps have been made to resemble a griffin and a horse. Later works depict biblical stories. A terrifically awkward floor mosaic from a church in northern Syria portrays Adam and Eve, who look like confused, wide-eyed children. Legions of saints appear on other objects, including Peter and Paul on a set of three silver chalices, Menas on a terra cotta flask, Symeon the Younger on a lead medallion and John the Baptist on a small wooden reliquary, its sides divided into comic-book-style scenes that tell his life story.
The cross appears in gold necklaces, in fabric monograms inlaid with precious stones and in an elaborately patterned tapestry that also features an impressive inventory of other Christian symbols. The centered compositions and simplified forms convey stillness and serenity.