Eastern, Western images of gospel writers contrast widely in Walters show

October 11, 1990|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Sometimes a show is just as interesting for what it's not ostensibly about as for what it is. The primary purpose of "The Book and the Author: Portraits of the Evangelists in Eastern and Western Manuscripts," at the Walters Art Gallery (through Jan. 6), is to show differences between portraits of the four gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) in the Byzantine tradition and the Western tradition.

And it does. Its 18 examples, aided by texts, clearly present the contrast between the austere, symbolic Byzantine images and the more personalized, humanistic Western images.

Four representations of Mark which begin the show demonstrate the static, stylized Byzantine tradition well. They are dated from the 10th to the 13th century, and, while certain elements do change, Mark's pose with hand to chin and the severity of the image remain constant.

That's not to deny the power of these representations. If they are more removed from life than their Western counterparts, they are also more godlike. We can't quite imagine this Mark as our next-door neighbor, whom we've interrupted in the midst of his writing, but then how much reverence does anyone have for his next-door neighbor?

While most of the telling Western examples date to later %J centuries than most of the Byzantine ones, it is possible to imagine the Mark of an 11th century southern Germany gospel as a next-door neighbor, as he dips his pen into a nearby inkwell in preparation for today's writing.

It is the 15th and 16th century Western manuscripts that offer the strongest contrast to the Byzantine works. There are more elaborate interiors in some of these works, placing the evangelists in settings the reader of the time would surely recognize. There is the occasional sense of a moment captured, as Mark holds the pen up to the light to examine it. There is humor, as in the scene of Mark copying from a book which his symbol, the lion, holds in its paws. And the expressions of these faces are more varied and human as well.

So the show proves its central point. But that's not all there is to be taken from it. How striking to see, for instance, that two Western representations of Mark, from the 11th and 16th centuries, are at once similar and different. The later Mark sits in a realistic interior with windows on either side, while the earlier Mark exists in a non-space on a gold background. But both scenes are bordered by striped green columns and topped by an arch or pediment of sorts. In the earlier version these classical elements are left over from antiquity, while in the later they reflect classicism reborn.

And how positively modern are some elements of these works. In a 9th century representation of the angel bringing the gospel to Matthew, clouds in the sky seem to swell with emotion, an expressionistic reflection of the evangelist's sense of awe. And Matisse would have loved the decorative, patterned background a 15th century Armenian portrait of Mark.

This is a show with a lot to meet the eye.

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