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Getty Exhibition Explores the Visual Representations of Christ in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts

LOS ANGELES.- Medieval and Renaissance images of Christ provided visual accounts of the historical Christ described in the Gospels and powerful entry points to prayer. Imagining Christ at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, May 6 through July 27, 2008 will display manuscripts from the Getty’s permanent collection that demonstrate the ways in which Christ was understood by the medieval and Renaissance faithful.

Though the study of the complete Bible is fairly common today, the majority of medieval faithful who were not members of the clergy depended largely on church services and private prayer books to access the word of God. Imagining Christ explores how the illuminations in these books demonstrate the multiple, overlapping ways in which Christ was understood to be simultaneously human and divine, the son of God and God, the sacrifice made for humankind, and the divine judge who would come again.

“This exhibition examines the role Christ played in the devotional life of medieval and Renaissance faithful and demonstrates how manuscript images allowed viewers to imaginatively participate in Christ's life, sacrifice and acts of salvation,” says Kristen Collins, associate curator of manuscripts.

Included in the exhibition is an English Romanesque manuscript acquired in February. The Vita Christi is an exceptionally beautiful manuscript that contains several unusual images of the events of Christ’s life, not often seen in illustrations. This is the first time the manuscript has ever been displayed to the public, since it has previously resided in private collections.

Also included is another recent acquisition, Christ in Majesty, a Limoges relief from around 1188 that is made of gilt copper and champlevé enamel. It is believed to be one of a larger group that likely covered the front of an altar in the Cathedral of Saint Martin in Ourense, Spain. This metal sculpture, which would have emitted a golden glow in the lamplight, would have further evoked the tangible presence of Christ in church.

Imagining Christ also looks closely at the ways in which medieval and Renaissance artists gave tangible form to Christ’s divinity. These artists illustrated Christ as possessing supernatural qualities that demonstrated his power over sickness and death. Unlike Christian saints who left behind bodily relics (such as bones) upon their deaths, Christ’s departure from this earth was marked by his physical absence. For the medieval viewer, an image of Christ’s empty tomb was a sign of his triumph over death.

Many late medieval depictions of Christ focused on his humanity and suffering, encouraging the viewer both to identify with the pain inflicted on his human body, and to actively imitate him. Images that showed the grievous injuries Christ suffered on the cross reflected the increasing interest in establishing a personal connection to the life and suffering of Christ through private contemplation and prayer.

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