Sacred Texts, Metaphysical Images

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The Getty Museum recently acquired an elaborately illuminated Hebrew Bible created in the Middle Ages, in the 13 th century, known as the Rothschild Pentateuch. This acquisition allows the Getty for the first time to represent the medieval art of illumination in sacred texts of three religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As a result, the museum is able to present a small but focused exhibition, Art of Three Faiths: A Torah, a Bible, and a Qur’an.

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Menorah of the Tabernacle. Decorated Page Text, Book of Leviticus. Rothschild Pentateuch (text in Hebrew). The J. Paul Getty Museum. Photo by Edward Goldman.

Beautifully designed examples of a ninth-century Qur’an and fifteenth-century Bible look as one would expect religious texts to appear, according to Islamic and Christian traditions of the time. But, somehow, when you enter the exhibition, your attention is drawn to the 1000-page illuminated Hebrew Bible, in codex form, rather than a traditional Torah scroll.

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L: Decorated Text Page, Book of Genesis. R: Decorated Text Page, Book of Exodus. Photographic reproductions from the Rothschild Pentateuch. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Photos by Edward Goldman.

According to The Getty, such examples of elaborately illustrated Hebrew manuscripts are extremely rare. In this Rothschild Pentateuch, Hebrew initials and words in gold and brilliant colors are combined with an array of vibrant figures in the margins. By law, Jewish artisans were forbidden to join painting guilds. Therefore, such Hebrew manuscripts were often illuminated by local – sometimes Christian – artists. Going to see this exhibition last Sunday was my way of paying respect and acknowledging Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – the holiest day of the year in Judaism.

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Beltame, 2014. Sharon Ellis. Christopher Grimes Gallery. Photo by Edward Goldman.

Last weekend, I also went to see half a dozen contemporary art exhibitions around town. And one of them, by Sharon Ellis at Christopher Grimes Gallery, made me think that her small, exquisitely crafted metaphorical paintings inspired by nature could be illustrations for a modern sacred text, with references to endings, loss, and ultimate renewal.

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Love Song, 2018. Sharon Ellis. Christopher Grimes Gallery. Photo by Edward Goldman.

The title of the exhibition, Blue Hour, refers to the time of day when the sun is no longer visible, yet light remains. Sharon Ellis is known for spending months on each of her extremely intricate compositions, unhurried, like nature itself. Her recent body of works, with its sense of sadness, reminds us that new life will always replace that which has passed on.

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Into Darkness, 2018. Sharon Ellis. Christopher Grimes Gallery. Photo by Edward Goldman.

Take a look at the image accompanying this report on the KCRW website, of Sharon Ellis’ Into the Darkness. Dry branches and black, silhouetted flowers sway in the wind, against a cloudy blue night sky. There is something metaphysical, melancholic, and metaphorical about the piece. It makes you think about the famous Latin phrase, ars longa vita brevis, which can be translated as, “life is short, but art is forever.”



Kathleen Yore