Saturday, September 29, 2018

Sacred landscapes


Simon Bening, The Baptism of Christ and The Temptation of Christ, c. 1525-30

Last year the J. Paul Getty Museum mounted an exhibition called Sacred Landscapes: Nature in Renaissance Manuscripts. The catalogue contains many appealing images that I am tempted to share here, although of course landscape itself is rarely the main subject of these paintings.  The full page illustrations above are in a prayer book, commissioned by Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, Elector and Archbishop of Mainz.  In these two scenes certain elements of the landscape settings seem deliberately to echo each other: the cliff, the river, the distant blue mountain.  They were the work of perhaps the greatest of miniature painters, Simon Bening, who was based in Bruges and specialised in books of hours. Interestingly, as the Getty website explains, Bening's 'eldest daughter, Livinia, became court painter to Edward VI of England, and another daughter became a dealer in paintings, miniatures, parchment, and silk.'

These illustrations are both 6⅝ by 4½ inches - similar to a small paperback (an old Pelican book I have to hand by Jacquetta Hawkes measures about 7 by 4½ inches). The Getty site allows you to zoom into these images in great detail, noting the beauty of their colours and delicacy of Bening's brushwork, before quickly losing yourself in their imaginary worlds. In the baptism scene, you can peer down into the water, whose ripples are picked up in the curving forms of reeds and riverbank, or look into the distance where a boat glides past rocks the colour of clouds.  In the temptation scene, deer graze on the slopes and venture down to drink from the winding river. The mountain peak is painted in blues, pinks and orange that resemble a pastel by Degas, or a watercolour by C├ęzanne. The two figures looking down from this summit represent another part of the Bible story. 'The devil takes Christ to a high mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen and offers him these lands if Christ agrees to adore him. Jesus coolly refuses all of these temptations and commands the devil to leave.'

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