Monday, August 5, 2013

At the Getty. 'Gardens of the Renaissance'

Drawing from their own collections of illuminated manuscripts, one of the greatest in the world, the Getty has mounted another one of their exquisite exhibitions. As a calligrapher and artist, I was enchanted by the work and impressed by the scholarship.

The exhibition features over 20 manuscript illuminations, a painting, a drawing and a photograph from the Getty Museum's permanent collection, as well as loaned works from the Getty Research Institute and private collectors James E. and Elizabeth J. Ferrell.
Bathsheba Bathing, Jean Bourdichon, Illuminator, French, Tours, 1498–1499

In this image of Bathsheba bathing in a fountain, her sensuous nude figure seduces not only King David at the palace window but likely also the patron of the manuscript that contained this leaf, King Louis XII of France (ruled 1498–1515). The biblical story that inspired this image does not mention a garden, but artists often placed Bathsheba in one because a garden was considered both a private space and a place of temptation. Louis XII employed Italian engineers to redesign gardens at his court, making them conform to the Renaissance principle of symmetry between palace and garden. In the illumination, the artist differentiates spaces for the planting of herbs, roses, and a citrus grove, all aspects one would expect to encounter in a royal garden.

The Annunciation, Master of James IV of Scotland, Illuminator, Flemish, Bruges and Ghent, 1510–1520 

At the bottom of this image, two angels tend the Virgin Mary's garden, arranged with square beds of flowers, including roses, lilies, and columbines. One angel picks a lily, which symbolizes Mary's sin-free birth. In a view of the interior, another lily is visible in a vase atop a wooden cabinet. The angel Gabriel, joined by an angelic retinue and the dove of the Holy Spirit, tells Mary that she will give birth to the Christ child, and she accepts the news with humility. In the sky beyond the house, Gabriel is shown again kneeling before God the Father in heaven.

In Annunciation scenes, Mary is often shown near an enclosed garden because Christian tradition associated the private green space with purity, prayer, and paradise, the last of which awaits Christians anew in heaven.

 Noli me Tangere, Lieven van Lathem, Illuminator, Flemish, 1469

In this scene, Mary Magdalene kneels before the resurrected Christ within a modest fenced garden. According to the Bible, after the Crucifixion, Christ was buried in a tomb on a plot of land containing a garden. Mary initially mistook Christ for a gardener, and thus artists in the Renaissance often depicted him holding a shovel, as here. The tall tree at the center of the image not only suggests a garden setting but likely refers to the Tree of Knowledge that grew in Eden, serving as a reminder of Christ's atoning sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

What is an Italian villa or French ch√Ęteau without a garden? In the Renaissance, gardens complemented the architectural harmony of courtly estates through plantings along a central axis and beds of herbs and flowers arranged in geometric patterns. The combination of sculptures, fountains, and topiaries in gardens not only communicated the patron's control over nature but also expressed the Renaissance ideal that art is inspired by nature and, in turn, nature is shaped by art. In manuscripts, a courtly garden could serve as a backdrop that conveyed a ruler's status or as a stage for activities both reputable and scandalous. 

Insect, Tulip, Caterpillar, Spider, Pear, from Model Book of Calligraphy, (text in Latin), Joris Hoefnagel, Illuminator; Georg Bocskay, scribe, Flemish and Hungarian, illumination 1591–1596, script 1561–1562, Watercolors, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment, 6 9/16 x 4 7/8 in., Ms. 20, fol. 25 
Painted with spellbinding precision, the pink-and-yellow-striped tulip shown here is among seven of varying colors featured in this book illuminated by Joris Hoefnagel for Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (ruled 1576–1612). The elaborate samples of calligraphy had been commissioned thirty years earlier by Rudolf's grandfather Emperor Ferdinand I (ruled 1558–1564), but Hoefnagel's naturalistic depictions of plants, animals, and insects rival the text in beauty. Rudolf cultivated botanical rarities, like the tulip, in gardens throughout his empire, and Hoefnagel's highly accurate illuminations preserve a floral record of species from as far away as modern-day Turkey and Peru. These images are also available in a series of small books.

The catalog for the exhibit is only $20. Drawn from a wide range of works in the Getty Museum’s permanent collection, this gorgeously illustrated volume explores gardens on many levels, from the literary Garden of Love and the biblical Garden of Eden to courtly gardens of the nobility, and reports on the many activities—both reputable and scandalous—that took place there.


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