National Museum of Women in the Arts collects more than 60 masterworks of the Blessed Virgin
Sometimes a person’s popularity is so well established that we might feel there is nothing new to say about her. Such is the case with the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose name adorned the medieval skyscrapers — all those great cathedrals dedicated to Notre Dame (Our Lady). Painters imagined her face; saints and poets probed her thoughts.
But an exhibit that opened in early December in Washington, D.C., offers new vistas on this age-old subject. Titled “Picturing Mary: Mother, Woman, Idea,” the show brings together paintings, sculptures, drawings and objects in various media from the 14th to the 19th centuries around a number of different themes. The guest curator is Msgr. Timothy Verdon, director of the Florence Cathedral Museum and author of dozens of books on sacred art.
“The Blessed Virgin Mary inspires so many people because of her central role in salvation history,” says Father Mark Morozowich, interim provost of The Catholic University of America.
“The centrality of a woman’s consent in bringing about the Incarnation and salvation emphasize her unique place in society and the world. Likewise, her role as Jesus’ mother conveys her warmth and love for him and, by extension, to the entire world. Mary as the image of the Church serves as a reminder that we should always respond to God’s gentle voice as Mary did.”
The only venue for “Picturing Mary” is the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Even before the museum opened in 1987, three prominent Catholic women in California had urged founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay to plan an exhibit about Mary, since, they noted, the Blessed Virgin has influenced more artists than any other figure in history.
The dream was revived two years ago when Holladay mentioned it at a dinner party, and Washington businessman Enrique Segura promised: “You do that exhibition, and I’ll see that it happens.” Segura introduced Holladay to Washington Archbishop Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl and many other prominent Catholics, and the project was launched.
In keeping with the venue, 10 works are by female artists, including six by the 17th-century Ursuline nun Orsola Maddalena Caccia and one by Sofonisba Anguissola, an artist who drew praise from Michelangelo while still a teenager. Caccia’s altarpiece of “St. Luke Painting the Madonna” portrays the evangelist creating both a painting and a sculpture of Mary, while Anguissola depicts her “Madonna and Child” picture on an easel behind her self-portrait. Elisabetta Sirani of Bologna and Artemisia Gentileschi of Rome, represented by one painting each, were among the leading artists in the 17th century.
These paintings raise the question of whether women envisage the Virgin Mary differently from their male colleagues. Visitors can mull their own reply to the question Verdon posed in the catalog: “Quite apart from the question of divine inspiration, who better than a woman can ‘picture’ the woman Mary?”
Miri Rubin writes in her catalog essay, “Mary: God-Bearer and Women,” that especially after 1200, when more than 1,000 new monasteries and convents were formed in Europe, and adults flocked to the religious life, “monks and nuns re-created the Virgin Mary as a European mother. They turned the mother of God into a member of their communities, a vibrant, loving figure, pure and human, demanding yet forgiving.”
The newer religious orders especially embraced Marian art. For example, the Cistercians turned away from the elaborate liturgy of the Benedictine houses and fostered “hard labor, simple surroundings and contemplation, often centered on the Virgin Mary.” In the 1200s, St. Francis of Assisi heightened the presence of a piety centered on the humanity of Christ. He set up the first Christmas Nativity scene, and Franciscans promoted the image of Mary suffering at the foot of the cross along with her crucified son.
Two groups of Christians will be particularly attracted to “Picturing Mary”: Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, whose love of the Blessed Virgin goes back to the earliest centuries of our faith. As for other Christians, Martin Luther was very attached to Mary as portrayed in the Gospel. He translated her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) into German, but he rejected the many feasts and devotions that had developed around her. Later reformers were more extreme, and the iconoclastic revolt that decimated church art in the 16th-century religious wars often targeted Marian sites.
Today, more and more Protestants are reconsidering Mary in light of her biblical role as the first Christian — she who believed before there was an incarnate God — her steadfast courage through the Passion, her witness to the Resurrection at a time when women were not legally entitled to witness, and her faithful presence in the upper room at Pentecost when the apostles must have feared for their lives.
Mary and Islam
Muslims do not regard Mary as the Mother of God, since they see Jesus as a prophet and not divine. However, the Koran singles out Mary as a holy woman, and Christians and Muslims share some of her shrines.
In Sura 3:42 of the Koran, the angels salute her, “O Mary, indeed God has favored you and made you immaculate, and chosen you from all the women of the world,” echoing the salutation of Gabriel recorded in Luke (1:28) to the future mother of God.
Amy Remensnyder recounts that Mary functioned both as warrior and diplomat between Islam and Christianity. In the 16th and 17th centuries, artists often portrayed the Virgin as an armed warrior against Muslim armies, especially the Ottoman Turks whose aggression threatened Western Europe. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on Oct. 7 celebrates the victory of a Christian military alliance over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571.
Despite the tensions and even open warfare, Christians and Muslims mingled at Marian shrines all across the Mediterranean. One of these was Saidnaya in present-day Syria, still a Christian church, but today, Remensnyder reports, it is filled with more Muslims than Christians seeking Mary’s help.
Another unique Marian refuge is the island of Lampedusa, now part of Italy. In July 2013, Pope Francis, in his first official journey outside Rome, went to Lampedusa and prayed at the Marian chapel that now stands on the site where Muslim and Christian refugees long ago found asylum.
“Picturing Mary” has inspired several projects at The Catholic University of America, which has launched a website dedicated to the exhibit at honoringmary.cua.edu. Nora Heimann is guiding student projects on Marian pilgrimage sites in Washington, and other programs include: a team-taught undergraduate course on Mary; satellite exhibits that will explore Marian imagery beyond the scope of the NMWA show; and an upcoming graduate conference.
The exhibit promises a unique experience of the unique young woman who was Mary. The exhibit sets side by side works loaned by major institutions like the Vatican Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art with pictures from smaller museums in places like Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Prato, Italy, and churches in Asti, Italy, as well as private collections.
Exhibit-goers will meet some of the biggest names in Western art, from Michelangelo to Botticelli to Rembrandt, next to others whose names you will hear for the first time.