National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  May 30, 2003

A print of Rubens' "The Assumption of the Virgin" by Paulus Pontius
-- Illustrations by © 2002 The J. Paul Getty Trust
Shadows of the divine

Exhibit explores printmakers’ visions of Christ and the Virgin

Los Angeles

While theologians searched for words to describe Jesus’ human and divine nature and Mary’s destiny as Mother of God, painters and printmakers reduced the mysteries to lines, shadows and shapes. What did Jesus look like wrestling with his humanity in death? And the Virgin, assumed bodily into the heavens?

“Between Heaven and Earth: Images of Christ and the Virgin,” currently on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, showcases prints, drawings and book illustrations of Jesus and Mary principally from the 16th to 18th centuries. The nearly 30 images depict the Transfiguration of Christ, his agony in Gethsemane, and his crucifixion and burial, Resurrection and Ascension. Other works show the Virgin’s death and bodily Assumption.

The exhibition is on display until June 29, after opening March 18.

It was co-curated by Stephanie Schrader, assistant curator of drawings for the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Louis Marchesano, collections curator of prints and drawings for the Getty Research Institute. Though curators from one department often borrow from other Getty collections to assemble shows, this exhibition is unique because it was a collaborative effort between two distinct Getty departments, the curators said.

“We wanted to make it a beautiful show,” said Marchesano. He and Schrader began working on the exhibition last summer. The organizers said a strength of the show is its variety, enabling viewers to see images not often exhibited side by side.

The curators juxtaposed two reproductions of a Raphael original of the Transfiguration that they said illustrate a connection between theology and printmaking. The prints were made more than two centuries after the Raphael image, with the first engraving dated between 1800 and 1850 and the second in 1795.

Described in the show as “one of the most influential images of the Transfiguration,” the Raphael work actually conflates two gospel stories. One part of the image shows Christ lifted into the air above three bewildered disciples. Below the Transfiguration scene, other disciples struggle to exorcise the unclean spirit from a demoniac boy.

Made by Ignazio Pavon, an Italian, the reproduction of Raphael’s original depicts a divine Christ. Light emanates behind him into the surrounding clouds. As his cloak unfurls in the wind, Christ gazes upward and away from the disciples’ failure to cure the demoniac below.

Despite the contrasts between Christ’s exaltation and the disciples’ struggle with the demoniac, the image clearly links the two incidents. A bearded observer of the possessed boy’s suffering points upward to the glorified Christ. The demoniac himself signals Christ even more dramatically, with one arm thrust wildly upward as his eyes orbit madly in their sockets.

The second version of the Raphael work, by Italian printmaker Raphael Morghen, is unfinished, a product of a trial-and-error procedure in which artisans made various test impressions to fine-tune their engravings.

"The Crucifixion" by Hans von Aachen

Freezing the printmaking procedure at an incomplete stage, Morghen left the part of the print showing the Transfiguration largely blank. In contrast to the Pavon print, the divine radiance in the incomplete Morghen engraving engulfs Christ, who is visible only in a few faint lines. The divine figure remains an airy outline awash in a mushroom cloud of light.

The tones in the Morghen print extend from the almost pure white enveloping Jesus to the darker shades near the demoniac in the lower part of the image. The proof gives the impression of the divine brilliance of a seemingly incorporeal Christ gradually making its way to the demon-possessed child below.

The curators propose that Morghen consciously applied the mechanics of printmaking to the artistic issue of representing the human and divine. The unfinished print, where the radiance around Christ all but effaces his physical features, offers a different view of Christ’s physical body than the finished version of the image in the Pavon print.

Not everyone would agree with the organizers’ reading of Morghen’s engraving. For Fr. Michael Morris, an art historian in the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., the print was more likely about finances than faith.

“Printmaking is a long, laborious process,” explained Morris, professor in the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, one of the member seminaries in the Berkeley consortium. “I don’t buy that somehow it has some deep theological implication.”

Morris instead underscored the economics of printmaking, a process that conveyed the power of well-known images to people without the financial means to travel to the sites of the originals. “Prints are very democratic,” Morris said, explaining that it was common for “a copy of a copy of a copy” to adorn even the walls of the poor.

Given the trial-and-error nature of printmaking, Morris said, artisans would sell their proofs, in addition to the finished prints, to maximize profits.

In addition to Christ’s exalted form in the Transfiguration, the exhibition shows the human suffering of Jesus prior to his trial and on the cross.

In a pen and brown ink drawing from about 1587, the German artist Hans von Aachen sweeps the viewer into Christ’s Crucifixion by using the partial figure of one of the thieves to frame the scene. The striking perspective guides the viewer from the shadowy image of the first thief, to the suffering Jesus in the center, to the second thief doubled over in pain on the other side of Christ.

The indefinite form of the first thief at the extreme left of the image contrasts with the neatly drawn figure of Christ, which stands out against a confused whir of activity beneath him. The light that washes over Christ fails to reach a rider and his galloping mount obscured in shadows at the right side of the image.

For the curators, von Aachen lends Jesus dignity in his suffering. “By contrasting Jesus’ idealized form with the broken and tortured bodies of the thieves,” reads the text accompanying the drawing, “von Aachen ennobled his death.”

From the Crucifixion, the exhibition moves to images of the Ascension. One of the depictions of Christ’s rise into the heavens is as provocative in what it hides as in what it shows.

A reproduction of an original by German artist Albrecht Dürer in a 1557 meditation manual leaves everything about the ascending Christ to the imagination and faith of the viewer except the bottom of his garment and cloak, the only part of Jesus visible in the image. While the curators point to the foot prints left by Jesus on the knoll from which he rises as evidence of his “corporeality,” the emphasis in the engraving is on the followers of Christ left behind to contemplate the human and divine figure taken into heaven before their eyes.

Just as the portrayals of the Crucifixion and Resurrection contrasted Christ’s earthly suffering and eventual triumph over death, images of the Virgin’s Assumption show an exalted figure different from the moribund one. A print by Rubens’ assistant Paulus Pontius after a 1618 altarpiece by the master shows the exalted Virgin, assumed into heaven by Christ, who awaits his mother at the very top of the drawing.

A book on meditation holds a reproduction of Albrecht Dürer's "The Ascension."

Explaining that Rubens worked closely with printmakers to ensure that their reproductions accurately represented his originals, the curators said the inclusion of Christ in the drawing was an addition to Rubens’ original. The altarpiece left Christ out because his figure was a sculptural part of the altar itself. Because the master and printmaker wanted to be “true to the context” of the altarpiece, they showed Christ welcoming his mother, whole, into glory.

One of only two images from collections other than the Getty’s is Rembrandt’s 1639 etching of the death of the Virgin, borrowed from the University of California, Los Angeles, Hammer Museum. Rembrandt places Mary on a canopied deathbed surrounded by attendants. Celestial observers watch the scene from above, drawn in less detail than the figures watching the Virgin’s suffering from the earthly plane.

The Dutch Protestant artist emphasized his “realistic” representation of the deathbed scene by positioning the bed on a platform and by framing it with a large curtain nearby, according to the show’s description of the work.

Even with the realism, Rembrandt reminds the viewer of Mary’s traditional importance as the Queen of Heaven, the curators suggest. Rembrandt’s depiction is “humble, but it’s regal,” Schrader said. The image shows the Virgin as “a human being that has to have her pillow propped up and her pulse taken, but it does not let you forget who she is,” Schrader added.

Juxtaposed images of Christ’s Resurrection and the Virgin’s bodily Assumption mirror a similar theological connection in Catholic tradition, according to Kathleen Dugan, professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego. While Pius XII did not promulgate the dogma of the bodily Assumption of Mary until 1950, the belief dates “practically to the beginning of Christianity,” Dugan said.

As Mary offered her own body as “tabernacle” for Christ’s, Dugan explained, it was natural that Christ would extend to her the gift of a bodily resurrection. “Potuit, voluit, fecit,” Dugan said, quoting the terse Latin formulation of Christ’s motivation: The divine son “could do it, he willed to do it, and he did it.”

The ancient doctrine enshrined in art still speaks today, Dugan believes. She pointed out that Pius XII promulgated the dogma shortly after World War II amid the 20th century’s “desecration of human life.” Together with the Incarnation, the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary’s body underscores the wholeness of life in the midst of a violent, materialistic age, Dugan observed.

For the curators of the Getty exhibition, the images of Christ’s and the Virgin’s suffering and exaltation communicate with directness and certainty about their subjects. The drawings, prints and illustrations “were meant to side-step” the age’s theological wrangling, said curator Mareschano, to “present a clear image of who and what Christ was.”

Ted Parks writes from Malibu, Calif.

Related Web site

The Getty

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 2003

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