The new exhibit at Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” conceived even before the museum’s birth in 1987, opened this year at long last, just in time for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The exhibit, which will continue until Easter, is under the curatorship of Msgr. Timothy Verdon, director of the Cathedral Museum of Florence, Italy and a leading scholar of Marian art.

An exhibit on the Virgin Mary may seem destined to be, to use Verdon’s own phrase, nothing but “reheated soup.” But there is in fact a long tradition of adaptability in Marian imagery, which “implies a degree of freedom of interpretation on the viewer’s part,” writes Melissa Katz in the exhibition catalog. Mary has long served, as this exhibit demonstrates, as “a shifting icon of social concerns, journeying from aloof and perfect queen to all-forgiving mother and champion of the lowly.”

The exhibit shows, too, how Marian imagery was pervasive in every medium over time: it includes not only painting and sculpture but also stained glass, liturgical vestments, enamels, and sculptures. Verdon draws upon the resources of the Diocesan Museum of Prato, a Tuscan city with a booming textile industry and many wealthy collectors who have lent their pieces to the museum. This provided many of the silver statuettes, enameled plaques, textiles, and wooden sculptures that fill out the concept between the more famous objects.

Verdon is intent on showing the interplay between text and image—the Word made flesh, made image. Each room in the exhibit begins with a text drawn from Scripture or hymnody that helps to shed light on the aspect of Mary being illustrated by the sixty works of art.

Image and scripture intertwine beautifully in one of the exhibit’s gems, the Botticelli “Madonna of the Book” featured on the catalogue cover and the posters. Mary and the child sit before an open book that evokes a liturgical text. “Between Mary and the book [Botticelli] places the child, who in Christian belief is God’s very word made flesh (John 1:14). Whatever Mary sought in the words of this book, she will in fact find in this child of flesh, who is God’s wisdom in person,” Verdon writes.

Although the exhibit boasts a Rembrandt etching and a Michelangelo drawing, many of the highlights are by less famous names. A rare painted terracotta sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Luca della Robbia stands out among several works of the Florentine Renaissance for its dramatic portrayal of awareness of Christ’s tragic destiny in the faces and pose of both mother and child. Verdon cites Hebrews 10: 5–10 to show that Christ accepted his future suffering before he came into the world, and St. Leo the Great went so far as to say that the only reason God’s son assumed flesh in Mary’s womb was to offer that flesh for humanity on the cross.

A charming panel by the “Master of the Winking Eyes” (Ferrara, c. 1450) shows the mother playing with her child as her veil slips over his head, an allusion to the way in which the flesh Christ took from Mary “veils” the Godhead.

A window depicting the Deposition and Entombment of Christ by the greatest stained-glass designer of the sixteenth century, Guillaume de Marcillat is stunning: It once hung between Pontormo’s frescoes of the Angel Gabriel and Virgin Annunciate in Santa Felicita in Florence, where the grieving Mary of the window, directly above the altar, looked across at her younger, joyful counterpart of the Annunciation.

Finally, the iconography of Sr. Orsola Maddalena Caccia, a provincial and largely unknown artist of the seventeenth century, stands out. Her altarpiece of St. Luke shows him not only with a painting of the Virgin and Child but contemplating a sculpture that he is making of the same subject. This suggests that Caccia was weighing in on the debate topic called the Paragone, in which painting and sculpture were compared, and here, surprisingly for a painter, she seems to take the side of sculpture. Caccia has taken care to portray Luke as a physician as he was described by St. Paul, his bookshelves groaning with volumes of ancient authorities on medicine.

And in a final touch she portrays the evangelist taking a pause from his work in composing the Gospel, where he is taking notes from previous accounts, and looking to two visual images for inspiration—“an astonishingly modern concept” according to Verdon. Caccia suggests that when Luke resumes writing his Gospel, he will incorporate the mental images he derived from painting and sculpture. This is particularly significant in light of the heated debate among Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth century over the role of sacred images—Caccia obviously does not subscribe to the notion of “the Word only.”

“Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea” shows us that the Virgin Mary, mother of the Word made flesh, is, like the Word, never static. In the imaginations of men and women throughout the centuries, she has been given, while always remaining queen and mother, many postures, many gazes. 

Nora Hamerman writes from Virginia.

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