Between Heaven and Earth

Apr 28, 2003 02:34 PM EDT

Los Angeles, Ca-- The relationship between the human and divine natures of Christ and the Virgin Mary is the focus of the new exhibition, “Between Heaven and Earth: Images of Christ and the Virgin.” Works from masters such as Rubens and Rembrandt are among the presentation of 30 drawings, prints, illustrated books and meditation manuals, that reveal the thoughts of Renaissance and Baroque artists in representing the central figures of Christianity.

The exhibition draws the connection between the earthly body and divine soul throughout scenes of Christ’s suffering, death, ressurection, and in the final days of the Virgin’s life; it contrasts the different school of beliefs held throughout those times, one portraying Christ and the Virgin as immaculate “godly” images, the other, illustrating them in a “humanly” form.

The exhibition opens with works portraying the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden. In the Getty's recently acquired print The Transfiguration (about 1795), Italian printmaker Raphael Morghen represented Christ as a ghostly outline. The radiating brilliant white light heightens the dramatic effect of his transformation. A completely different experience is presented by French painter and draftsman Carle Vanloo, whose The Agony in the Garden (about 1760) shows Jesus fainting at the thought of his impending death with two angels supporting his heavy, collapsing body.

"Unlike the heavenly being of The Transfiguration, the Jesus of The Agony in the Garden experiences profound human emotions," said Stephanie Schrader, co-curator of the exhibition and assistant curator, department of drawings, J. Paul Getty Museum. "Contemplating his preordained death, Christ prays for deliverance. As he submits to God's will, his prayers become more desperate. Artists conveyed this anguish by employing various poses and gestures—from fainting to pleading."

The Crucifixion and the Entombment of Christ are illustrated in works by German artist Hans von Aachen, Italian artist Luca Penni, and others. The charged attitudes of mourners in many of these scenes reflect Christ's beaten humanity as clearly as the corpse itself.

The works on view depicting the Resurrection and the Ascension demonstrate how artists dramatized Christ’s final moments on earth. "Together, depictions of the Resurrection and the Ascension evidence Christ's triumph over death and the divine nature of his human body," said Louis Marchesano, co-curator of the exhibition and collections curator, Getty Research Institute. "In an engraving made by Schelte Adams Bolswert after an altarpiece by Peter Paul Rubens, Christ steps from a rocky cavern holding the banner of the Resurrection and the palm leaf that signifies his victory over death. Christ's wounded body radiates a halo of divine light and elicits a variety of responses from the soldiers, who cower, flee, or gaze with rapt attention."

Closing the exhibition are the Death and the Assumption of the Virgin. Rembrandt etching of “Death of a Virgin” shows Mary, sitting in a regal bed surrounded by attendants. A light shines from the heavens, giving the pictorial a divine quality, though a doctor taking Mary's pulse hints at her humanness. The portrait lies next to a painting by Caravaggio, also with the same name, but with a different account of Mary. In Caravaggio’s commissioned painting, Mary lies stiff on her deathbed. Her body is bloated, her feet dirty, her dress and hair disheveled.

The curators say the exhibit is meant, not to raise theological issues, but rather to demonstrate how the debate within Christianity played out among Renaissance and baroque artists who brought the beliefs and doctrines of their church to the masses. Catholics leaned toward the divine interpretation of Mary's and Jesus' nature and Protestants tended to depict their humanity.

"The images circulated to all levels of society," said Marchesano, the museum’s curator. "They taught you stories from the Bible and how to behave."

By Pauline J.