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Review: The Getty's 'Canterbury' a potent mark of medieval art

As family trees go, the one created inside Canterbury Cathedral nearly a thousand years ago is pretty impressive.

Monumental stained-glass windows feature nearly life-size figures that represent the ancestors of Christ. The lineup starts with Adam and runs through such memorable Old Testament men (and only men) as Noah and Abraham, along with less well-known folks such as Enoch and Rehoboam.

The colorfully translucent depictions embed ancestry right into the mighty cathedral's stone walls. Like a family album writ large, the patriarchs of the Christian church appear to help keep the soaring structure standing. Colorfully dappled sunlight transforms the vast interior into a mesmerizing space of shimmering magnificence. The power of history fuses with the power of art, making a politically potent spectacle.

Portions of six of those monumental windows are currently in an unusual exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, paired with an illuminated manuscript painted slightly earlier and a relatively short distance away. The St. Albans Psalter is a lavishly illustrated volume containing a Book of Psalms. It probably dates from about 50 years before the ambitious program of stained-glass ancestors, 86 in all, was begun in Canterbury.

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The Psalter is also generally regarded to be the first fully developed example of Romanesque art in England, the style having blossomed in continental Europe in the 11th century. Juxtaposed with the Canterbury windows, the show suggests how quickly, and thoroughly, the Romanesque pictorial language was established across the Channel.

The Norman Conquest surely helped.

Two epic events hover in the show's background: the fateful year 1066, when the invasion of England triggered profound social and cultural transformations in government, nobility, feudal structure, religious authority and more; and 100 years later, the murder of the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, which sent shock waves through medieval society.

At the Getty, the manuscript pages showing Christ's life are laid out directly opposite the ancestor windows. What made the juxtaposition possible are conservation programs coincidentally being undertaken simultaneously.

The Psalter, now kept in the Cathedral Library in Hildesheim, Germany, was unbound in 2006 and then brought to Los Angeles for further study and analysis. (It will soon be permanently rebound.) At Canterbury, several windows needed to be removed while repair work on the framing walls is underway. Getty curators Kristen Collins and Jeffrey Weaver had the bright idea of bringing St. Albans and Canterbury together.

Ironically, the small book's miniatures outshine the monumental windows. 

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Don't get me wrong: The stained glass is certainly impressive. The figures are composed from richly colored pieces of leaded glass whose details — the elaborate drapery of Noah's robes, say, or the intricate beard and lavish throne of his brash father, Lamech — are deftly painted. (The identity of the artists is uncertain.) Romanesque art is famous for compartmentalizing the forms of its subjects, assembling them like puzzle pieces to form a whole, so a panel made from interlocking glass is an ideal vehicle for the style.

The windows are also at something of a disadvantage in a museum exhibition. (When the show closes at the Getty on Feb. 2, they will travel to the Cloisters Museum in New York.) While it's remarkable, and rare, to have the opportunity to examine them up close, they were designed to be seen from a distance and within an elaborate architectural program.

Here, it's sort of like looking at a painting through a magnifying glass — enlightening, to be sure, if not exactly the experience that was intended. They are illuminated from behind, but artificial light, even and unmoving, further tamps down the environmental impact of windows normally enlivened by the vicissitudes of shifting sunlight.

The juxtaposition with the Psalter does remind us that we are looking at just about the only types of English Romanesque painting that remain. Wall paintings are mostly long gone, so paintings on glass and parchment have a lot to say.

Canterbury was Europe's gateway to England. St. Alban was Britain's first Christian martyr, his demise in a village just north of London ordered as part of a sweeping edict by Diocletian, the fourth century Roman emperor. The manuscript was probably commissioned for a nun at the cloister named for him. 

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The book, apparently trimmed down at some point in its long history, features sheets roughly the size of modern letter paper. A calendar chronicles the months on Earth and in the heavens, thanks to zodiac signs paired with pictures of daily labors (harvesting, slaughtering cattle, picking grapes, etc.). The nun, Christina of Markyate, was from a noble family, so the elegant labors in their decorative roundels function more as idealized spurs to humility than documentary records of back-breaking work.

Initials introducing each psalm are elaborately adorned. The best, such as a sinuous letter S whose undulations evoke the flow of water central to the accompanying text, are the epitome of the word made flesh.

The Psalter's least interesting section is the "Alexis Quire," an illustrated poem primarily about the life of St. Alexis. (Like Christina, he fled an arranged marriage for a life of piety.) The tinted colors and symmetrical compositions are bland, which perhaps doesn't say much for the joys of monastic life.

But the 40 pictures of Christ's life are magnificent. Their vivid, saturated colors and gilding on calfskin parchment are as brilliant as the lighted glass in the nearby windows. Many compositions are marvelously inventive.

Take King David, reputed author of the Psalms, enthroned and playing his harp. The serpentine floral decorations and rhythmically patterned border that envelop him are positively musical. A dove — the Holy Spirit — has flown in to whisper into the poet's ear. Inspired, David's eyes grow wide. 

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Every body part is a single, self-contained shape. Each drapery section describes only the portion of limb or torso beneath it. All facial features are singular, separate and whole unto themselves.

The thorough compartmentalization of Romanesque style embodies a highly organized, stratified world view — a place for everything and everything in its place.

To keep from getting pictorially dull, a man's toe or a ram's horn might just barely overlap a confining border, bursting the frame. David's foot does that in the triangular space formed by the stretcher between the throne's two legs. The king, righteous but flawed, could come spilling out into the seemingly chaotic world of the Psalter's devoted reader.

Of course he never does. The book seeks to be an inspiration for faith in its teachings.

Who painted the Psalter? That isn't precisely known, although at least four different hands have been identified.

Disassembling the great book has provided lots of new information about how and when it was made, and what it means. If you want a deep dive into its mysteries, the slim volume published in conjunction with the show is both impressive in its scholarship and perfectly readable for the interested layperson. (A second slim volume ably discusses the stained glass; the show has no catalog per se.)

Perhaps its most important revelation: While the St. Albans manuscript appears sumptuous, it was comparatively inexpensive to produce. Genius resides in the brilliance of its artistry — which, come to think of it, shouldn't be surprising at all.

christopher.knight@latimes.com  

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'Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister'

Where: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood

When: Through Feb. 2. Closed Monday.

Contact: (310) 440-7300, http://www.getty.edu

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