LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Think of an illuminated manuscript and a few stock images come to mind: ornate capital letters, high-browed pale ladies, haloed babies and lines of Latin words in Gothic script.
But two current shows at the Getty Center, this city's white Legoland of a hilltop museum, ask viewers to look beyond those conventions to the backgrounds of illustrated religious manuscripts. There, curators hope, they will find a lushly imagined world of blooming gardens, fecund valleys, babbling rivers and frolicking animals, all designed to convey a religious message as important to the creators as that of the text.
"The goal of these artists was to promote a deeper meditation," said Alexandra Kaczenski, co-curator of one of the exhibitions. "The hope was that these images would promote an emotional connection in the viewer that would be the equivalent of being there when Christ was crucified."
That's a tall order, but judging by the works in the two shows — "Sacred Landscapes: Nature in Renaissance Manuscripts" and "Giovanni Bellini: Landscapes of Faith in Renaissance Venice" — it was one artists in Italy, France, Germany and England took seriously.
It is also a message today's people of faith will recognize — that God's creation is worth exploring and preserving.
"We hope these beautiful works will show contemporary viewers that our ancestors had a strong connection with the natural world, "Kaczenski said. "For a Christian audience these works connect directly to their faith and practice, but for secular viewers or those of other faiths these works still offer moments of quiet contemplation and awe. We hope that by viewing these verdant or wild scenes anyone might have the same transcendent experience."
The two exhibitions are in adjacent galleries. Both showcase works from the period between 1450 and 1550 and all feature biblical subject matter.
In the Bellini exhibit, which consists of 13 works on loan from museums in Europe and the U.S., figures of St. Jerome, St. Francis, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist are posed in front of landscapes not of the desert biblical lands, but of the rolling green hills and dales of Northern Italy.
Bellini makes little attempt to accurately convey the dry, brown landscape of the Holy Land — though one of St. Jerome has a foreground of rocky ground and outcroppings — but instead paints the green hills and blue skies of the Northern Italy where he worked and painted.
"A naturalized landscape begins to appear in the early 15th century," C. Griffith Mann, curator of medieval art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval art collection, said about the art of this time. "It is often one strategy used to bring the past compellingly into the present. In other words, depicting biblical events as if they took place in a setting familiar to readers brought these events into their lived experience.”
The theological point Bellini and his fellow artists wanted to make is clear: The teachings of the Bible are not long ago and far away, but relevant here and now. The roads winding through some of the landscapes disappear into the misty distance as if to take that same message beyond the viewer and into the broader world.
"Giovanni Bellini knows the earth well, paints it to the full, and to the smallest fig-leaf and falling flower, blue hill and white-walled city, glittering robe and golden hair," the English art critic John Ruskin wrote in 1856. "To each he will give its lustre and loveliness, and then he proclaims that heaven is bright."
Across the foyer, at the Sacred Landscapes exhibit, that same message is taken up and expanded in 34 works in prayer books, psalters, books of hours and other pieces drawn from the Getty's own extensive collection of manuscripts.
As in the Bellini exhibit, the landscapes depicted are contemporary to the artists'. The various saints and biblical figures interact with the landscapes in ways intended to convey their groundedness in the real world — Adam and Eve lounge on green grass beside a golden fountain; St. Jerome uses a tree to hang his cloak and hat on; and in "Virgin and Child on a Grassy Bench," by an anonymous German artist, the seated Mary seems to bloom from the turf, the curling ends of her hair entwined with the grass.
Many are also encoded with flowers, plants, animals and other elements of nature that act as symbols of Christian theology — a white lily for Mary, a dove for the Holy Spirit, a caterpillar for resurrection, and the cedar, the oak and the almond tree are all associated with Jesus.
"These symbols and tropes would have been familiar to the viewer of the time," Kaczenski said. "The pleasing combinations of these natural elements were intended to convey the harmony of heaven."
That is a message the museum hopes to take beyond Christians to patrons of other faiths and no faith. It held a gallery talk targeted to both exhibits that focused on the spiritual power of nature that encompassed Christianity, Judaism, Native American faiths and contemporary spirituality.
"Nature can be very powerful in reminding people of their smallness," said Sara Patterson, an associate professor of theological studies at Hanover College, who was among the panelists. "I think that that sense of being overwhelmed by the natural world can open people up to experiencing the divine in new and different ways because I think we walk around our regular everyday lives with a sense of our bigness and our importance. That stood out to me as a theme that has clearly echoed through the centuries — that nature can remind us how small and vulnerable we are."
"Giovanni Bellini: Landscapes of Faith in Renaissance Venice" continues at the Getty through Jan. 14, and "Sacred Landscapes: Nature in Renaissance Manuscripts" continues through Jan. 7.