What do you suppose is the one verse of the Bible that has generated the most Christian art?
Certainly John 1:14—“and the Word became flesh”—is a compelling option, as the reality that God became man is the fertile soil from which all artistic praise of God springs. But is there one seed that has fallen into that soil and borne the most fruit? For that honor, I’d suggest a different verse from John, this time towards the end of the Gospel: “Behold your mother!” (Jn 19:27).
Behold your mother! What a tremendous harvest of art, culture, and beauty has sprung up from these three simple words! Almost from the first days when Christians began making representational art, Mary has been a constant presence, the perfect witness through whose eyes the mystery of Christ is revealed in its loving splendor. By the late fourth century, for example, Mary begins to appear next to the Christ-child in Nativity scenes, poised in humble adoration, and what may be the earliest extant crucifixion scene, an ivory carving from around 420, features a stalwart Virgin poignantly framed between Judas the Suicide and John the Beloved Disciple at the side of the Cross.
To tell the story of how Christians have beheld their mother in art through paintings, sculpture, literature, music, and architecture is almost coterminous with telling the story of Western art tout court.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. has spared no expense or effort to capture the depth and radiance of this artistic tradition with its new exhibit, entitled Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, running from December 5, 2014, to April 12, 2015. This exhibit of more than sixty paintings, sculptures, and liturgical vestments from the Renaissance and Baroque periods is curated by Msgr. Timothy Verdon, director of the cathedral museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore) in Florence, whose vast artistic erudition and deep Marian devotion is abundantly evident in every detail of this landmark project.
Picturing Mary moves through six distinct exhibit spaces, each concentrating on a specific way of considering the Virgin artistically and theologically: the Madonna and Child, Woman and Mother, Mother of the Crucified, Mary’s Singular Life, Mary as Idea, and Mary in the Life of Believers. This sensitive arrangement allows the viewer to appreciate the variety and continuity within Marian art, without the visual weariness that can arise when a museum simply jumbles together an endless series of nearly identical Madonna-and-Child images to fill out its medieval section.
The result is a narrative of contemplation, joy, and love, revealing the manifold ways that the seed of Marian devotion bore fruit in Western art. Picturing Mary lets us see that artists’ attention to Mary was not merely a formalistic adherence to social and visual norms, but a source of life, creativity, and perpetual freshness.
The exhibit draws together a truly stunning collection of works of nearly unflagging quality, from the vibrant dynamism of Filippo Lippi’s Madonna and Child, to the dense symbolism of Andrea Mantegna’s Madonna of the Quarry, to the understated pathos of Rembrandt’s Death of the Virgin, rising to a climax in Botticelli’s Madonna of the Book and Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Each of these works is carefully and sensitively placed, so that the viewer can experience each piece in the context of the others, but without distraction from them—a fellow-museum-goer even mentioned that the presentation of Caravaggio’s magnificent painting here far surpasses its setting in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome, where this treasure can get lost in its surroundings.
The Caravaggio work alone, I have to say, would make the exhibit worth the price of admission (a mere $10 in any case): bracketed on either side by humbler works from Caravaggio’s artistic “father” (Simone Peterzano) and “grandfather” (Titian), the large 4½-by-6-foot canvas blurs the line between religious painting and religious experience, inviting the beholder to become a genuine actor in the drama of the Holy Family’s flight.
But perhaps still more impressive than the mere fact of the famous names and paintings gathered here is the tenor of the whole exhibit. Through a carefully chosen selection of texts set tastefully against the rich-toned walls of the exhibit space, including the Book of Revelation’s passage about the mysterious woman clothed with the sun, the Alma Redemptoris Mater and the Stabat Mater—two great medieval hymns that sprang as naturally to the lips of our Christian ancestors as the Hail Mary does to ours—and Dante’s praise of the Virgin from the end of the Paradiso, Picturing Mary offers museum-goers a rare opportunity to behold the Virgin not merely as a woman, a mother, or an idea, but as the Mother of God. The museum’s great achievement has been to present these works of art in harmony with the culture of devotion from which they sprang, enabling the beholder to experience first-hand the love of our Christian ancestors for the humble Virgin from Nazareth.
At the risk of straining the reader’s credulity by endlessly sounding notes of praise, I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the label placards accompanying each work—often the worst part of an exhibit, giving either far too many irrelevant details or forcing the viewer’s interpretation in some way—are unusually restrained and informative.
The label for Tiepolo’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, for instance, mentions not only that the goldfinch in the Christ-child’s hand is a symbol of the passion, but also explains why (because the birds were thought to live on thorny thistles and because a legend held that a goldfinch plucked a thorn from Christ’s brow, thereby gaining its distinctive red mask). Here the quality is not perfectly uniform, but they remain generally valuable.
For many of our contemporaries—even fellow Christians and Catholics—the world of Marian piety can feel distant or, at worst, foreign. We may be tempted to think of Marian art as a boring medieval phase that we have to walk through in a museum before we finally get to the Impressionists. But Picturing Mary has given a remarkable gift to us by showing forth the radiant splendor of Marian devotion and the art that grew organically from it, helping contemporary viewers of all faiths to see that the gaze that looks lovingly on Mary is by that fact brought to gaze lovingly on her Son.
I can think of no better way to conclude these brief comments on this rare exhibit of Western Christianity’s artistic praise of Mary than with the words of Fr. Ambroise-Marie Carré, in his 1966 Lenten conferences at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, in which he beautifully expresses the religious dynamic on display in all great works of Marian art: “Think about the masterpiece that is our cathedral in Paris. It was built for the glory of God and as the temple of the Eucharist.
But we call it not ‘The Glory of God’ nor ‘The House of Bread,’ but ‘Our Lady’ (Notre-Dame), because it sprang from the hearts and hands of a people that prayed to Jesus in praying to Mary, and that knew that without Mary we would not have Jesus.” Behold your mother; behold her Son.
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