The baby Jesus wraps his little fingers around the finger of a doting magus in a tender scene of curiosity and delight. The wise men are clothed in vibrant oriental garb, the glittering jewels on their headdresses mimicking the pile of gems and gold that they offer to their new prince. A star shines brightly up above as Mary and Joseph, clothed in classical draped attire, keep a tight hold on their little one.
This intimate and familiar scene, titled Adoration of the Magi, was painted by Henri Lehmann in 1854 and is currently in the collection of New York’s Dahesh Museum and part of a lovely little exhibition now on view at the Museum of Biblical Art (MoBiA). This particular painting, hidden in the back of the gallery space, is a gem of a work painted with such clarity as to draw the viewer instantly to it. The baby is bathed in light and the thickness of the paint on the magi’s crowns is a pleasing surprise. What is so delightful about this painting, as a curator recently pointed out, is the distinction between the Renaissance-style Mary and the oriental-style wise men, the artist’s attempt to bring realism to the scene. It is almost as if the work is composed of two different paintings and yet the scene magically fuses together seamlessly.
Adoration of the Magi is only one of over 30 works on view in Sacred Visions: Nineteenth-Century Biblical Art from the Dahesh Museum Collection. On view through February 16, 2014, Sacred Visions discovers how artists portrayed biblical stories throughout the course of the 1800s. Although this time period is better known for the Impressionists and avant-garde, notes the curator, and the artists here displayed are generally unknown today, they would have been widely recognized as masters of their trade 200 years ago.
The exhibition takes visitors back in time on a tour through history and the Bible alike. Organized by the Dahesh’s associate curator Alia Nour and research assistant Sarah Schaefer, Sacred Visions is well-researched and developed. Deep gray and maroon walls are offset by scrolling white text and gilded frames. Labels tell the Bible story depicted, along with just enough historical background on the artist. Drawings, paintings, and sculpture of all sizes comprise the exhibition.
The show begins with a few drawings of note, including Leon Joseph Florentine Bonnet’s Jacob Wrestling the Angel (1876), which showed how artists used biblical scenes mainly as a way to explore “representations of the human body” in their academic work. We then learn of the French Academy’s Prix de Rome, a prize given to a worthy artist, from which Alexandre Cabanet’s The Death of Moses is a product. Probably the first work you’ll see as you enter MoBiA’s gallery space, the monstrous six-foot 1851 painting portrays a youthful God welcoming a stiff and resigned Moses surrounded by angels, the Promised Land of Israel bathed in sunset just beyond Moses’ feet. The blue and gold butterfly wings behind the hovering angels are delicate and fanciful and the range in body poses, color, and light would have served to prove the artist’s worth to the Academy.
As we travel through the gallery, we learn of commissions made for church and personal use, the devotion to Mary beginning in the 1830s, and the use of landscape in biblical artworks. The culminating image, notes the curator, is Franck Kirchbach’s Christ and the Children, painted in 1894. In this oversized work, Jesus sits calmly and patiently, surrounded by a group of young boys and girls as his disciples and other passersby and workers stop to watch. This “serene” image of Jesus, who is also painted as a white man with flowing brown hair and beard and wearing white robed, represents the beginning of a style that continues to modern day. This particular painting was especially conserved for the exhibition and is on view for the first time in many years.
MoBiA never fails to exhibit thrilling works of art, organizing them in a way that both delights and educates the viewer. Sacred Visions, a collaboration with the Dahesh, follows in the footsteps of past fascinating shows like On Eagles’ Wings, Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion, and Ashe to Amen. Although the Dahesh doesn’t have a gallery of their own, it is obvious that they have amassed quite a collection and the research that both museums perform will continue to inform art and religion aficionados for generations to come.
MoBiA is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10-6, and is always free. Various curator talks and programs accompany this and every exhibition. Check out one of the most unique museums in New York today!