By: Natalie J. Plumb
In a day and age when modern feminism decries virginity, insisting rather that women’s freedom is found in expressing our sexuality in whatever haphazard way we please, I was pleasantly surprised when I heard that Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts was opening an exhibition, running December through April, on the very person whose pillars are, among others, modesty, virginity and humility.
“Picturing Mary addresses the story of women and art by focusing on the most frequently depicted woman in Western art until the 18th century.” –National Museum of Women in the Arts
Mary, the Mother of God, “the most frequently depicted woman in Western art until the 18th century,” a panel of the exhibit boasts, is the crux of this new exhibit. A woman who has found herself the subject of controversy, the pillar of a faith, the Mother who birthed the Savior of the World, is the center of attention in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother Idea. There is no better time than the present to go and encounter her.
Here are my top 10 (okay, 11, but that’s only because it’s seriously good) reasons you should go this Lent before the final day of the exhibit on April 12:
It has rhyme and reason. A lot goes in to planning any art exhibit, and Meet Mary was no exception. The exhibit is not just a random assortment of famous and not-so-famous paintings, sculptures, textiles and decorative objects depicting Mary. It has an inherent rhythm and story, walking each visitor through an intentional path. Visitors can choose how to walk through the exhibit since the rooms are not built to be navigated for you. However, following the order listed below, spectators are not only taken through the chronological order of Mary’s earthly life, but also through a progression of spiritual elements and depth (notice that “Mary in the Life of Believers” comes last).
- The Madonna and Child
- Woman and Mother
- Mother of the Crucified
- Mary’s Singular Life
- Mary as Idea
- Mary in the Life of Believers
This exhibit will help you relate to and see Mary as an individual, within the context of her earthly life. A lot of people consider Mary unapproachable. I have at times, too. But when you consider, and begin to understand through various artistic depictions, her earthly life – her as Woman, Mother, Idea – she quite quickly becomes a mighty intercessor of prayer, and a trusted friend and Mother to us all.
When we see her through all of the various perspectives in which this exhibit presents her, we see her as: “a bereaved older parent, the mother of an infant, the protagonist in her own rich life story, a daughter, cousin, wife and faithful servant to God, a link between earth and heaven, and active participant in the lives of those who turn to her,” a museum panel puts it.
Seeing the Caravaggios alone is worth the trip. I was just in Italy last November, where I saw numerous Caravaggios. Most of us do have to get on a plane for an opportunity like this since many of the works in Picturing Mary are on view in the U.S. for the first time. Rather than booking an expensive trip to all the places this museum is borrowing from – the Vatican Museums and the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, in Rome; the Galleria degli Uffizi, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Palazzo Pitti and Palazzo Medici, in Florence; the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, in Milan; and so on – just hop on your local metro train. You’ll quickly want to come back just to soak up these artistic wonders and masterpieces that maybe you thought you’d never see in your lifetime.
The text adorning the walls of the exhibit is biblical, fitting and beautiful. Its presentation is in harmony with the culture of devotion from which the literature sprang. Here is a list of the texts you’ll find in each exhibit:
- The Madonna and Child – Book of Revelation, 12:1-6
- Woman and Mother – Gospel of St. Luke, 2:33-35
- Mother of the Crucified – Alma Redemptoris Mater hymn, Hermannus Contractus (1013-1054)
- Mary’s Singular Life – The Divine Comedy: Paradise, Canto 33, 1-8, Dante Alighieri
- Mary as Idea – Titles of Mary in the Litany of Loreto
- Mary in the Life of Believers – Memorare prayer, attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153)
Mary is not to be minimalized in her role in the salvation of humanity. This exhibit highlights her importance in salvation history (and, for discussion on another date, opens a starting point for ecumenical dialogue). God chose to use her as the vessel, and trusted her to carry out His plan, and carry the Son of God through whom His plan would come to be, with a backdrop: the stark reality of her humanity.
This is on the wall in the third room of the exhibit, “Woman and Mother”:
Mother of Christ, hear thou thy people’s cry
Star of the deep and Portal of the sky!
Mother of Him who thee made from nothing made.
Sinking we strive and call to thee for aid:
Oh, by what joy which Gabriel brought to thee,
Thou Virgin first and last, let us thy mercy see.
–Alma Redemptoris Mater, hymn attributed to the monk Hermannus Contractus (1013-1054)
“Meet Mary” doesn’t shy away from the faith. The exhibit openly and honestly walks the viewer through Mary’s life, properly emphasizing the “sword” that would “pierce” her, given her participation in her Son’s life, from birth to death. It’s the little things, too, that make this exhibit authentically capture a believer’s view of Mary. From referring to Mary properly as “the Virgin,” to detailing the history of Marian depiction – including both mid-16th century, Protestant discouragement of non-biblical Marian depictions, and more frequent and affluent non-narrative depictions of her (such as her preservation from sin, which entered Catholic dogma in 1854) – this exhibit tells Mary’s whole story.
You might just fall in love with art. If you don’t already have some artistic obsession, you might want to #MeetMary to get your fix.
This exhibit throws you into history, whether you like it or not. Among the pieces of art displayed are Fra Filippos Lippi’s Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), ca. 1466-69, which was created for the Medici family itself.
Moreover, the exhibit walks you through the humanist movement in Renaissance Europe – celebrating God’s power, the dignity of human beings, increasing interest in the developmental phases of infancy and early childhood.
“Artists in this period focused on Mary’s and Jesus’s humanity by depicting interaction between the mother and child, at the same time emphasizing their special status.” –National Museum of Women in the Arts
Another pivotal work on display in Picturing Mary found its mark in history around the same time as the Catholic Church officially declared the dogma proclaiming Mary’s conception without sin, the Immaculate Conception in 1854, when Angelo Pellegrini created Immaculate Conception and Symbols of the Evangelists (Madonna Immacolata e Simboli degli Evangelisti), ca. 1860, a statement at the time.
The museum unveils a diverse collection of female and male artists. The National Museum of Women in the Arts predominantly displays women artists. In this case, each of them, male and female, explores the truly unique idea of Marian womanhood through paintings, sculptures, textiles and decorative objects from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
You have an incredible opportunity to contemplate the crucified Christ in a fitting depiction, setting and tone. In the third room of the exhibit, “Mother of the Crucified,” Giorgio Vasari’s Crucifixion is a standalone display. If you’re lucky to get a moment in the small room by yourself, the empty space is powerful. It allows you to simply be there, at the foot of the cross, meditating on the words written on the adjacent wall:
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.
–Stabat Mater, opening verses of the hymn attributed to the Franciscan poet and friar Jaeopone da Todi (ca. 1230-1306)
Natalie writes about faith, relationships, and the in between. May her non-fiction stories and scenarios challenge you. May they help you laugh, cry, think and wonder.
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