Until the eighteenth century, the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, was the most frequently depicted woman in Western art, showing up in paintings and sculptures created by a who’s who list of artists. The National Museum of Women in the Arts has brought together an impressive collection of artwork depicting the Virgin Mary and exploring the many ways she has been perceived throughout history. (Top: Elisabetta Sirani, Virgin and Child)
And what better time to mount such an exhibit than during the Christmas season when Mary’s image seems to be everywhere. Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea includes familiar paintings like Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, as well as many that are less well known, like those by Orsola Maddalena Caccia, an Italian nun. Thanks to intelligent wall text accompanying each piece of art, we are encouraged to look beyond the brushstrokes to consider each artist’s vision of Mary.
Orsola Maddalena Caccia, The Birth of St. John the Baptist
Over time, Mary’s persona evolved. Before the Renaissance, she was often portrayed as a queenly figure. During the Middle Ages, she was seen as more approachable, perhaps reflecting the views of religious orders such as the Franciscans. Then, during the Renaissance, her human side, particularly how she interacted with her son and members of her extended family – her mother, Saint Anne, her cousin Saint Elizabeth and her son, Saint John the Baptist – was explored in artwork.
Of course, Mary’s prominence is directly related to her role as the mother of Jesus so most artwork explores that relationship, in the early days when she cared for him as an infant, to the later years when she stood helplessly by as he was crucified. As a young mother, Mary’s interaction with Jesus, as seen through the artists’ eyes, shows affection, playfulness, and, in several cases, grief as she perhaps had a premonition of her son’s fate.
There are so many high points in the exhibit. Here are just a few.
While the Immaculate Conception is often thought to refer to the virgin birth, it actually refers to Mary being born without sin, her destiny to give birth to the son of God preordained. That belief was made an official part of Catholic doctrine in 1854. Angelo Pellegrini’s Immaculate Conception and Symbols of the Evangelists, near the beginning of the exhibit is stunning. The silver statue shows Mary wearing a crown of stars and standing on a crescent moon.
Lorenzo di Credi, The Annunciation and Three Stories from Genesis
The Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to tell Mary that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus, is a frequent subject for artists. Lorenzo di Credi’s tempera on wood panel In this exhibit, shows that Mary in accepting God’s will balanced out Eve’s disobedience. Three simulated stone relief scenes at the bottom of the painting illustrate Eve’s story.
Works that include both Mary and the infant Jesus dominate the exhibit. Yet each one reflects not only the artist’s view, but the time in which he lived and the patron who had paid for the work of art. Fra Filippo Lippi, for example, created the tempera on wood panel Madonna and Child for the wealthy Medici family of Florence. To reflect his patron’s social standing, Mary is dressed in beautiful, luxurious fabrics.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child
In contrast, Artemisia Gentileschi’s oil painting shows a much more modestly attired Mary. She’s barefoot, wears simple clothes and, Jesus shown tugging at her top, appears to be in the act of nursing her baby.
Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child
Was Mary aware that her son would one day be crucified? Several artists incorporated that feeling, sometimes in subtle ways, other times more overtly. Luca della Robbia terra-cotta Madonna and Child has Mary holding a squirming Jesus, with a sad expression on her face. Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna and Child shows Mary reading from a prayer book with a thoughtful expression, her son holding a crown of thorns.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Madonna of the Goldfinch
Cosmé Tura’s Madonna and Child in a Garden plays up the close relationship between mother and son, yet does Jesus’ sleeping pose hint at his death? And is Mary shown sitting on a sarcophagus? Perhaps the most startling statement foreshadowing Jesus’ fate is Giovannai Battista Tiepolo’s Madonna of the Goldfinch. Jesus clutches the small bird seen as a symbol of his crucifixion.
Carvaggio, Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Carvaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt is not based on anything in the Bible but on legend that the Holy Family fled into Egypt having been warned that King Herod wanted to kill the Christ child. In the painting, Mary and Jesus are shown resting while an angel plays the violin, Joseph looking on. The work is considered one of Carvaggio’s most ambitious, although the actual date he completed the work, thought to be 1597, is still in dispute.
Several of the paintings by Orsola Maddalena Caccia are interesting, not just because of their subject matter, but because this nun is not well known. The daughter of a painter, Guglielmo Caccia, Orsola and her sisters were Ursuline nuns. Because Mary is viewed as a mentor and an inspiration for women religious, her effort to honor Mary through her art is fascinating.
Vittore Carpaccio, Marriage of the Virgin
There are paintings that explore topics that might be seen as controversial. Vittore Carpaccio’s oil on canvas, Marriage of the Virgin, shows Mary in the temple, Joseph chosen as her husband among the many suitors when his staff miraculously sprouted flowers. And then there’s Rembrandt’s The Death of the Virgin. Did Mary actually die before her assumption into heaven?
The exhibit is intelligent, thought-provoking, and, of course, beautiful. And this is the perfect time of the year to see it. And the museum’s Mezzanine Café makes the visit complete.
Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea
National Museum of Women in the Arts
1250 New York Avenue NW
Elisabetta Sirani, Virgin and Child, 1663; Oil on canvas, 34 × 27 1/2 in.;
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Conservation funds generously provided by the Southern California State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts
Orsola Maddalena Caccia, The Birth of St. John the Baptist
(Nascita di San Giovanni Battista), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti
Lorenzo di Credi, The Annunciation and Three Stories from Genesis (Annunciazione e Tre Storie della Genesi), ca. 1480–85; Tempera on wood panel, 34 5/8 × 28 in.; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; inv. 1890 n. 1597
Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129
Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), also called Madonna of the Book (Madonna del Libro), 1480–81; Tempera and oil on wood panel, 22 7/8 × 15 5/8 in.; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; inv. 443
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Madonna of the Goldfinch, ca. 1767–70; Oil on canvas, 24 13/16 × 19 13/16 in.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Samuel H. Kress Collection; inv. 1943.4.40
Vittore Carpaccio, Marriage of the Virgin (Sposalizio della Vergine), also called Miracle of the Flowering Staff (Miracolo della Verga Fiorita), 1502–05; Oil on canvas, 56 3/4 × 60 in.; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan