‘Picturing Mary’

Family Matters: Catholic Culture


The exhibit Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea brings together an extraordinary collection of paintings, reliefs, chasubles, statues and sketches, all of which reveal to the world the beauty that is Mary. 

Running through April 12, 2015, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington hosts a treasure trove of images of the Virgin Mary by Renaissance and Baroque artists. The art was gathered from the Vatican, the Musee du Louvre, Galleria degli Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti and other private and public collections.

It is a remarkable assortment of beautiful sacred art.

The exhibit is organized into six rooms, reflecting the various themes developed in the process of rendering a vision of the Blessed Mother.

The six themes were “Madonna and Child,” “Woman and Mother,” “Mother of the Crucified,” “Mary as Idea,” “A Singular Life” and “Mary in the Life of the Believers.” The online tour (NMWA.org/meetmary) further allows one to explore the universal appeal of the Virgin Mary and how she was often rendered to reflect the culture of those who venerated her through art. 

Msgr. Timothy Verdon, director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and canon of the Florence cathedral, came to Washington for the premiere of the exhibit.

He provided a wealth of information about the history behind each of the pieces, the artists themselves and the details within each work. 

For example, he noted that female artist Artemisia Gentileschi in the early 1600s had no hesitancy about portraying a mother preparing to nurse her baby, while male artists of the same time period shied away from such realness. He also drew special attention to Botticelli’s Madonna of the Book, showing where another artist, at some later point, added a gold crown of thorns and infant-sized nails to represent Christ’s coming crucifixion.

The story of Mary, he said, “spoke of how God could have just allowed truth and light to explode in our hearts and minds, but instead opted for a more gradual way,” allowing us to grow in love for him as a child grows in a mother’s womb, Mary’s womb.

But even for the nonbeliever, the depictions of Mary reveal the concerns of the time, the sensibilities of the artist, the fashion of the day and the debates within the Church about particular aspects of the faith at that time.


Mary’s Beauty

The layout of the exhibit allows for a much more contemplative and intimate experience of these beautiful works of art than one normally experiences in a museum showcasing works of Fra Filippo Lippi, Michelangelo, Lorenzo di Credi and Rembrandt.

The exhibit invites one to spend time in contemplation, to let one’s eyes rest on the details of a halo, a wisp of hair, the elegance of fingers and the pattern in the mere trim of a sleeve.

This is art presented in a way that allows the viewer to feast on beauty — and feast deeply. 

Here, the visitor comes face-to-face with Andre Pisano’s marble relief of the Madonna and Child, and the joy on her face and that of Jesus is palpable. 

Each room held pieces that dazzled. Pellegrini’s Immaculate Conception in Silver could just as easily be called Mary, Queen of Heaven. Augustino diDuccio’s Madonna d’Auvillers is a stone relief of extraordinarily delicate detail.  

These are pieces that put flesh to the story of Mary. These works invite us to recognize the very realness of Mary and Jesus — fitting contemplation for Christmas, the Jan. 1 Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, and beyond.

If there’s a lament, it is that there are not more rooms to address each of those moments of Mary’s life we’ve come to know through the mysteries of the Rosary.

But given the scope of history that is involved, perhaps this will be merely the beginning of an ongoing exhibit that could explore more of the life and meaning of this most humble handmaid of the Lord.

This is a collection that invites prayer, contemplation and awe. 

Come to see the beauty that is Mary. Come and behold your Mother.

Sherry Antonetti writes from Gaithersburg, Maryland.

TENDER CARE. Luca della Robbia,
Madonna and Child (Madonna col
Bambino), also called Madonna
of the Rose Garden (Madonna del
Roseto), ca. 1450–60; glazed terracotta,
32 5/8 × 24 3/4 in.; Museo
Nazionale del Bargello, Florence;
inv. R031