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


A few years ago I was leading a group of American Jews on a tour of sites in Eastern Europe. Convinced that the narrative and psychological history of Poland cannot be understood without a visit to Jasna Gora, the great pilgrimage church in Czestochowa, and a view of its devotional painting, the so-called Black Madonna (believed to have been painted by St. Luke), I brought the tour group there en route to Auschwitz. To my disappointment, many in the group were puzzled, some even amused, at the crowds of people intensely venerating the small painting.

“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.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday
22

Polka gets dotty at the Getty this evening with the last installment of the center’s Summer Sessions series. “21st Century Roots” offers “roots music for the new millennium,” in the form of three groups: Brave Combo, a polka ensemble that mixes music from Mexico, Germany and Japan; Golem, an edgy klezmer rock band; and moira smiley & VOCO, a band that mixes the dance songs of Eastern Europe with Appalachian tunes. International folk dance lessons are also offered.

5:45 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. (dance lessons). 6:30 p.m. (first music set). Free. Getty Center South Courtyard, Courtyard Stage and Garden Terrace, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300.

Sunday
23

Can’t get enough of the man in tights? Head to the Museum of Television and Radio to see Superman as he appeared — in his many forms — on the small screen. For one final week the museum presents a selection of TV shows, including the 1950s “Adventures of Superman”; the steamier 1990s Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher affair, “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”; today’s Superman for the teen and tween set, “Smallville”; the animated 1970s classic “Superfriends” and the newer “Justice League”; as well as the unaired 1961 pilot of “The Adventures of Superboy.”

Through July 30. Noon-5 p.m. (Wed.-Sun.). $5-$10 donations suggested. 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 786-1025.

Monday
24

Beat the summer heat with a refreshingly star-free film festival. Dances With Films enters its ninth year with a host of talent-filled films, sans celebs. Why no familiar faces? Festival co-founder Leslee Scallon explains, “The other festivals are busy programming mostly celebrity oriented films. It’s not that we’re dissing celebrities, we’re just giving films a chance to be seen that are getting squeezed out of the circuit.” Offer your support July 21-27.
$10 (per ticket), $125 (festival pass). Laemmle Fairfax Theatre, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2929.

Tuesday
25

Young Artists International alights on Los Angeles for its ninth annual International Laureates Festival. The week of classical music concerts features iPalpiti, their orchestral ensemble of 26 musical masters ages 19-30, representing 26 countries. Tonight, a smaller affair at the Ford Theatre features Bassiona Amorosa, a virtuosi sextet of double-bassists from Munich.
July 23-30. Prices and locations vary. (310) 205-0511.


Wednesday
26

Love a Gershwin tune? Karen Benjamin and Alan Chapman explore George’s music in tonight’s installment of the Parlor Performances @ Steinway Hall Presents… “Songwriters and Their Songs” series. Hear some of his best-loved pieces, as well as the stories behind them.
8 p.m. $25. Steinway Hall, 12121 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 471-3979.

Thursday 27

Judi Lee Brandwein can’t get no satisfaction, but discusses it this one last night, for your amusement. “Fornicationally Challenged” is the 40-something divorc’e’s one-woman mature-audiences-only comic show. It returns tonight only for a local send-off before its opening at the New York International Fringe Festival.
8 p.m. $20. Santa Monica Playhouse Main Stage, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 394-9779, ext. 1.

Friday
28

Ponder the art of Bonita Helmer in George Billis Gallery’s exhibition of her latest works. The moody, thought-provoking abstract acrylics focus on the interplays of fundamental elements, forcing the viewer to reconsider basic notions such as space and time.
Through Sept. 2. 2716 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 838-3685.

Finders Keepers?


It’s definitely tsuris time at the pristine white acropolis complex of the Getty, which overlooks the San Diego Freeway, and at its wonderful, freshly renovated, fake Pompeian villa up the Pacific Coast Highway. Barry Munitz, the Getty Trust’s president and CEO since 1998, has been battered with press reports about apparently uncontrolled and self-indulgent personal expense-account spending of the kind that we have learned to associate with corporate malfeasance. The Getty’s vast assets may result from spectacular corporate earnings, but a trust is responsible to the public — to us! — not to stockholders. Insider staff dissatisfaction became most evident last fall, with the sudden resignation of Getty Museum Director Deborah Gribben.

Last week’s overdue resignation of Getty trustee and major antiquities donor Barbara Fleischman appears to be an attempt to resolve conflict-of-interest charges, which earlier forced the resignation of Marion True, the Getty’s prominent curator for antiquities. True is currently being tried by Italian authorities, who claim that she was involved in the Getty’s acquisition of allegedly stolen archaeological material. (Her defenders argue that True was actually responsible for the museum’s adopting stricter policies to determine the legality of its acquisition of ancient art.) Meanwhile, the Getty trustees have been attacked for inadequate fiduciary oversight, while simultaneously creating an investigative committee to see whether anything wrong has happened in either the Trust’s or the museum’s actions.

Problems like the Getty’s grab headlines because the countries from which the antiquities came — Italy, Greece, Turkey and Mexico among them — are no longer shy in their very public demands for restitution. In response, our own sense of righteous indignation moves in one of two directions: outrage that a museum is holding objects that are alleged to have been stolen and/or outrage that a museum — society’s safe-haven for precious things — is being asked to return objects to people who didn’t know how to take care of them properly. (Hey, otherwise how would they have gotten out in the first place?) This problem of objects claimed by previous owners or countries of origin faces all museums with historical holdings like a looming epidemic, a sort of Asian bird flu of the arts: There are a few isolated cases so far, but the fear of contagion could spread panic.

The Getty’s initial opaque response to such external pressures seems to be typical of many of our most valued public institutions, although it’s just possible that the Getty’s stunning arrogance is exceptional, even in the uppity world of museums. The Getty’s very spot, at the top of mountains in Pacific Palisades and in Brentwood, is symbolic of the institution. Is there, in these locations, an innate sense of not belonging to all those freeway backups down below that is emblematic of the distance between the Getty and the necessary demands of the real world? And is this what we see in many of our museums — that is, while providing one kind of access (educational programs, audio guides, etc.), they are nevertheless making sure that there is a wall keeping the public from knowing anything about how the place is run, the role of the trustees, and whether there are questions surrounding how the collections got there?

In light of this, I’ve been remembering my own professional museum experiences, and how I functioned in my role as a public servant — for that’s what museum workers are. On an organization chart, I reported directly to the trustees, but I always knew that my real bosses were the museum visitors, or even the potential visitors I had yet to lure in. Guiding midsized museums, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art and later the new Jewish Museum in Berlin, placed me in highly visible positions, but it never occurred to me that I needed an unlisted telephone number or other means to keep the public from my door. Even while working at the Smithsonian as assistant secretary for museums, with oversight responsibility for 15 of our national museums, I felt that anyone ought to have access to me, whether in my office or at home and, frankly, it never was a problem. Despite its size and wealth, the Getty management’s secrecy and absence of candor is not acceptable for an institution that is meant to serve as a public trust.

The criticism, nevertheless, is worth reviewing as well. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was quoted expressing his concern “that the Getty board has been spending more time watching old episodes of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ than doing its job of protecting Getty’s assets for charitable purposes.” But then, the Senate is not exactly our first stop when seeking probity these days. And even though the Council on Foundations recently placed the Getty Trust on probation, that doesn’t give us license to rush to judgment.

Here are some Jewish ethical questions we might ask prior to a Getty visit:

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