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A leap of faith in Old Masters' Holy Land.

The biblical landscapes and characters painted by medieval Old Masters seem oddly out of place in the Holy Land.

Nothing looks familiar to Israelis visiting the exhibition in Jerusalem's Israel Museum. Old and New Testament figures - in European garb - are portrayed in scenes set in dense German forests, lush Italian countryside and the rugged American West.

Samson's father Manoah sacrifices a lamb in Philistine territory that looks suspiciously like a Brazilian rainforest. An armadillo and a gecko look on as the biblical hero tries to appease the angry Hebrew God transplanted to the tropics.

A Pharaoh's daughter rescues Moses from the Nile in an elegant Veronese gown as a bizarre escort including a dwarf, dogs, pantalooned soldiers and an African attendant with a monkey stands by.

The paintings seem outlandish because artists like Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and Brueghel never set foot in the Holy Land, the setting for hundreds of masterpieces until art turned away from religious themes towards the end of the 19th century.

'They might have seen images, engravings and so forth, but most of them interpreted either from their imagination or from a local landscape,' said museum director James Snyder, the driving force behind Landscape of the Bible: Sacred Scenes in European Master Paintings.

The hardship and peril of travel to the East forced pre-modern Western painters to make good with an ersatz Holy Land. The Bible's lack of descriptive detail gave them even more of an excuse to let their imaginations run wild.

Now, Israel's national museum is contemplating that paradise lost. It borrowed 46 great works based on Hebrew Bible and New Testament stories from 33 museums including Paris's Louvre, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Florence's Uffizi and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

'For (these artists) the Bible was not just pure ancient history. It was a living reality and in order to bring the audience closer to those paintings, one of the devices that was used was the local environment,' said curator Gil Pesach.

'None of them actually came close to depicting the real landscape of the Holy Land.'

Snyder and his team were more concerned that the scenes from New Testament scripture may not speak to the museum's mostly-Jewish local audience.

One Israeli visitor considered Nicolas Poussin's St Matthew writing his gospel as an angel dictates among the ruined columns and marble pedestals of sun-drenched classical Rome.

'I have to say, I don't understand the Christian stories,' she said.

Inaccuracy didn't seem to bother the masters of the European painting tradition. Weird and illusory architecture, costume and characters out of time and place confound the canvases.

Israelites in fanciful 16th century Dutch garb cross the Red Sea. Mediaeval monks escort the Holy Family to Egypt.

King David wages war in Roman battle dress while his concubine Bathsheba reclines in a state of 18th century French deshabille.

Lot and his daughters, clothed in 16th century Germanic style, lie in a bushy garden while tongues of fire consume a scarlet sin city of Sodom.

In some of the best European landscape painting, which emerged as a genre in the 16th century, nature eventually overtook the biblical subject.

'The religious scene and the landscape were mainly a pretext to make a beautiful painting and to show a beautiful landscape,' said curator Yigal Zalmona.

In Paradise Landscape with the Fall of Man by the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel, a riotous spring grove in Flanders is overrun by exotic animals sketched in European zoos. In an obscure nook, Eve plucks the apple, barely seen.

In a work by Thomas Cole, a tiny St John, lost in the immensity of a craggy gorge, preaches to his followers somewhere in the North American wilderness.

Artists often used the grandeur of nature as an expression of divine power and the belief in God as the creator. Geography stole the stage from biblical characters.

In Peter Paul Rubens' Shipwreck of St Paul, a stormy vista dominates the centre of the picture while the shipwrecked men drag themselves on to the beach in their struggle for survival.

Rembrandt, for instance, could not resist the temptation to add cheery Dutch windmills and a civilising horse-drawn carriage on the horizon of his bleak Samarian wilderness.

After all, how do you paint a desert if you've never seen one?
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 30, 2000
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