September 14, 2006
Holy Moses—The Getty’s latest collection puts a Christian perspective on the leader, lawgiver and
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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.
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