Sunday, July 06, 2008

"Imagining Christ" at the Getty

If you live in Southern California, you must go. :) It's just one room, the one where they always show medieval manuscripts, and they've turned 'em to new pages that all have portraits of Christ. Here's the website, which probably won't work after this month:

Last November I saw the Dead Sea Scrolls at the San Diego Natural History Museum, and ranted a bit on this blog about the viewpoint that had been imposed on the display. There was some deconstruction of those weird beliefs of the past, and I didn't like it.

What I love about the Getty is that their displays of religious stuff (and there are amazing treasures in their collection) don't deconstruct anything. They don't offer postmodern commentary or opinion about the artwork of the past and the beliefs that inspired them. And there are no leading invitations in the art descriptions saying things like, "What do you think? What is your viewpoint about this?" as if to put non-religious visitors at ease, as if people are such babies that they need help processing their exposure to a different worldview.

What the Getty does in their displays is to tell you about the people who produced the religious art or made use of it, and what they believed. Period. They give you the information relevant to the work and let you form your own commentary. They don't annoy me. :)

And they really got the Catholic theology right; half their captions were about the Real Presence and said things like, "One of the central beliefs about transubstantiation was that Christ was not symbolically but truly present on the altar." Yeah, some of the vocabulary usage seemed a bit mushy, and there was a mistake or two (under a manuscript showing Adam and Eve the caption says they were forbidden to eat of the Tree of Life) but on the whole the captions were much more doctrinally correct than any given issue of The Tidings. :)

One thing you won't get from the exhibit is that all this continues to be the Catholic belief and practice; it hasn't changed. The Getty display makes it seem as if this was all just the exotic custom of the medieval past, long since died out, instead of stuff you could find in the Catechism today. But I figure that's fine, since the display isn't about the present, but about the time the manuscripts were made.

Several manuscripts were sacramentaries with Latin prayers for the Mass, and I was thrilled to be able to recognize little bits, since the 1962 Missal isn't much changed from the 14th-century Latin. I'm bummed my picture attempts didn't come out (no flash allowed) and the Getty page linked above cuts out the text and only shows the pictures, so I can't show you what I mean. But I think once or twice the Latin on the page was the canon of the Mass, and I'm pretty sure I recognized the part about Christ after supper taking the chalice into his holy and venerable hands: Simili modo postquan coenatum est, accipiens et h unc praeclarum Calicem in sanctas ac venerabiles manus suas...

If I were a better writer I'd find some way to make you experience how cool it was for me to see all this really old stuff and completely relate to it and the people who made it because we're all part of the same Church. :)

It's interesting to know a bit about when different forms of devotion began to become popular. Christ was rarely depicted as crucified in Christian art until about A.D. 400, if I remember correctly. Before then, Christians were still very near the time when they'd been seriously persecuted and crucifixion was very much a live concern for them. So the theory is that showing their Savior crucified just was too much, or rubbed them too raw, or seemed inappropriate, or something. But eventually the crucifix etc. caught on. Even then, though, Christ apparently was usually portrayed as pretty calm while being crucified. It wasn't until medieval times that they really got into depicting him suffering, with bloody wounds and all. The Getty captions tell me it was part of a movement to feel more of a personal connection with Christ by contemplating his Passion.

(Take what I write with a grain of salt; I'm just going on memory.)

Here's an amazingly detailed picture from one of the manuscripts, showing the Mass of St. Gregory the Great. Check out the vestments, like a cross between Gothic and Roman. I like them! I'm also a big fan of angels with brightly colored wings. The medievals had it right-- why the heck should they be boring white? I'm not necessarily hardcore enough to advocate a return to the tonsure, though.

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