"Jews don't do that sort of thing," they said. When I asked how many of them had placed a small slip of paper in the crevices of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, they assured me "That's different!" and rejected my argument that we have our own kinds of object veneration, best exemplified in the ceremonial kissing of the Torah as it is carried around the synagogue.
The Getty Center's upcoming exhibition "Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai" (Nov. 14-March 4) provides a great opportunity to ponder these religious confluences, while also coming almost face-to-face with some of the earliest, and most beautiful, images in Christian art. Mount Sinai resonates for Jews as the place where Moses received the Law from God. The wilderness of Sinai is the place where the Israelites wandered after their escape from Egypt. The images come to the Getty from Saint Catherine's Monastery, located at the foot of the rugged mountain, which is said to where Moses communicated with the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-5). But viewers might be surprised to see that the Moses images in some of these extraordinary works aren't the ones we're accustomed to seeing.
The exhibition includes images from both the "New" and "Old Testament," but it is the link between the former and the site from which they emanate that may be most interesting to the Jewish community. It's a major accomplishment for the J. Paul Getty Museum to have persuaded the religious powers in charge to lend treasures from this venerable, yet almost inaccessible, site; but it's also a coup for Angelenos, since the exhibition will not be seen elsewhere, and few of us are likely to have the opportunity to visit the monastery itself.
But this is more than an opportunity to ogle rare treasures. Indeed, they come to us with a visual tradition of their own, and need to be understood within that tradition. Byzantine art, with its vast time span, from the fifth century almost to the modern era, is generally characterized by stylized frontal figures and a rich use of color, especially gold. It doesn't look like the more naturalistic art we have come to know since the Renaissance, although visitors will recognize in these icons the underpinnings of much early Italian panel painting. Initially, the somber narrative images may look static, but they merit careful attention to uncover the magic of delicately doleful faces, almost every one with a unique personality, sharing in a piety to which we can only aspire.
As devotional objects, the icons are eloquent, and it's probably worthwhile imagining the pious monk communicating with these images on a daily basis. They must surely have become personal devotional friends, assistants on the route toward salvation. Seen as mantras for meditation exercises, these icons have a universal quality that goes far beyond the specificity of a given saint or religious narrative.
While the Getty exhibition centers on approximately 43 rare icons, from the sixth to the 17th centuries, the exhibition will also attempt to explicate their context in the isolated monastery whose construction was ordered by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century (he's the one who built the famous, and beautifully ornate, Byzantine church, Hagia Sofia in what is now Istanbul).
Yale professor Robert S. Nelson led a team of curators who obviously became as transfixed by the place as by the works they were borrowing, attempting to present in the exhibition design a sense of the environment in which Saint Catherine's sits. For those who want to contemplate the difficulties of land and climate endured by the wandering Israelites, that aspect of this exhibition should be an added incentive to visit the Getty.
Yet the concept of a 1,400-year-old monastery as a Christian pilgrimage site that is so intimately tied to Jewish history would likely be a seductive subject, even without the inspirational art. The show will explicate the role of icons in Christian liturgy, which ought to intrigue both Christians and non-Christians. As professor Thomas Matthews writes in the splendid catalog, the icons "bring us face to face with the deep debt of Christian religion to its pagan antecedents ... [and] challenge our understanding of the underlying religious phenomena."
That will surely be evident to Jewish viewers, as well, for the affinity of so many of our own rituals.
Given the Sinai origins of this exhibition, you won't be surprised to find a number of images of Moses: Removing his sandals in front of the Burning Bush, receiving the Law and even standing beside the Virgin and Child. You won't encounter the Moses we've seen in later Western art, who's also the venerable law-giver we know from Jewish ceremonial objects -- all of which have their origins in Christian art. Here Moses is a young man, generally beardless, almost diffident, in awe of his God, rather than awesome to his People. This might be a reflection of the monks' considering Moses as a role model in their lives of meditation and prayer -- a Moses striving for, rather than automatically imbued with, sanctity; he is the law-receiver, rather than the law-giver. Among the small number of non-icon artifacts in the exhibition is a sixth century cross incised with scenes from the life of Moses.
Remarkably, these icons were first published only in the 1950s, so this rare public display promises to expand our understanding of an important chapter of art history, especially in regard to European panel painting for which these paintings are important antecedents. The earliest ones have also provided new insights into the cult of icons and the religious sensibilities underlying this major aspect of Christian worship, as well as its debt to earlier pagan sources.
But the most striking aspect of the show is in these images' magnetic personalities, which transcend time. The stunning visage of a sixth century Jesus stares at you searingly with an intensity that could worry you if you're not a believer. Jesus inspiring Jewish guilt! The reluctant Virgin in a 13th century "Annunciation" conveys the fear and confusion of a young woman confronting God's messenger. The 14th century vignette that depicts the "Descent from the Cross" has the majestic power and pathos of the grand 15th century "Avignon Pieta" in the Louvre.
We might wonder at how the proto-modern abstract designs on the garments of Saint Michael, Saint Basil and Saint John Chrysostom impacted the devotions of monks who surely discharged more time with these images than we spend with an early Frank Stella painting.
In the 12th century "Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Climaius" (showing the 30 steps needed to achieve salvation), those very same monks are working their way upward, undeterred by the devils threatening to attack them. That's a useful emblem for reminding us all, that we shouldn't be put off by the Christian core of this important exhibition. It's an upward train ride, rather than a ladder, but even if the journey's end doesn't guarantee salvation, it certainly promises spiritual renewal, while making us reconsider our own traditions of iconic devotion.
"Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai" Nov. 14-March 4, J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. www.getty.edu. (310) 440-7300. Tom L. Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.