Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts has since December hosted an exhibit focused on the Virgin Mary. Boasting works by Italian masters like Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Titian as well as many gems by lesser-known artists, Picturing Mary portrays the Holy Mother as Queen of Heaven, embodiment of the Church, Christ’s sorrowful mother, and comforter to the faithful. These works taken together beautifully illustrate the rich variety of roles Mary plays in the lives of the faithful and the universal power her image still holds.
But one piece stands out for a different reason. Bernardino Monaldi’s Madonna of the Rosary and Saints, from 1611, depicts the moment Mary delivered the rosary to Saint Dominic. Angels showcase the Joyful, Glorious, and Sorrowful mysteries in the background and a small party of saints stands in witness of the event. Alongside St. Dominic we see St. Stephen, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and others, all staring up reverently at the Virgin. St. Michael the Archangel alone among the heavenly posse looks straight at the viewer, as does a demonic Hellhound curled up at his feet, barely noticeable in the dark corner of a scene so much dominated by Mary’s luminous presence. Not even the Christ Child, cradled in Mary’s arms, looks the viewer in the face.
With their eyes, St. Michael and the demon each makes demands on the viewer’s attention. Both look oddly calm, even peaceful, though St. Michael’s face betrays a hint of tragedy where the demon’s suggests only scheming calculation. The demon, though physically cowed under Michael’s sword, seems content. And Michael, for his part, seems almost discouraged that this despicable creature at his feet will, despite his own best efforts, capture its share of souls. The two figures seem oblivious to the momentous scene surrounding themthey wait for us to meet their gaze and choose a side.
In this scene we find a useful reminder of the immediacy of spiritual warfare. Even as Mary lends her divine assistance to the faithful, even as the presence of the Infant Jesus evokes the joy of the Christmas promise, even in the midst of the communion of saints, the devil lurks. Patiently he stalks his prey, and with morbid curiosity we glare back. The Prince of Heavenly Hosts offers us an alternative allegiance, but it requires we shift our stare.
One can be sure both St. Michael and the demon will be looking to catch our eye as we enter the Lenten seasontoward whom will we look?
Travis LaCouter graduated from the College of the Holy Cross.