Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea

5 Dec 2014 — 12 Apr 2015 at National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington

18 JULY 2014
Nicolò Barabino, Faith with Representations of the Arts, (La Fede con i Rappresentati delle Arti), 1884–85; Oil on canvas, 89 3/4 x 112 1/4 in.; Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence; inv. N. 90.87.1028
Nicolò Barabino, Faith with Representations of the Arts, (La Fede con i Rappresentati delle Arti), 1884–85; Oil on canvas, 89 3/4 x 112 1/4 in.; Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence; inv. N. 90.87.1028

Appearing throughout the entire world, her image is immediately recognizable. In the history of Western art, she was one of the most popular subjects for centuries. On view Dec. 5, 2014–April 12, 2015, Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, is a landmark exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), bringing together masterworks from major museums, churches and private collections in Europe and the United States. Iconic and devotional, but also laden with social and political meaning, the image of the Virgin Mary has influenced Western sensibility since the sixth century.

Picturing Mary examines how the image of Mary was portrayed by well-known Renaissance and Baroque artists, including Botticelli, Dürer, Michelangelo, Pontormo, Gentileschi and Sirani. More than 60 paintings, sculptures and textiles are on loan from the Vatican Museums, Musée du Louvre, Galleria degli Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti and other public and private collections—many exhibited for the first time in the United States.

“Among the most important subjects in Western art for more than a millennium was a young woman: Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her name was given to cathedrals, her face imagined by painters and her feelings explored by poets,” said exhibition curator and Marian scholar Monsignor Timothy Verdon, director, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy. “This exhibition will explore the concept of womanhood as represented by the Virgin Mary, and the power her image has exerted through time, serving both sacred and social functions during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.”

Picturing Mary is the newest project in an ongoing program of major historical loan exhibitions organized by NMWA, including An Imperial Collection: Women Artists from the State Hermitage Museum (2003) and Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and other French National Collections (2012). In addition to illustrating the work of women artists, NMWA also presents exhibitions and programs about feminine identity and women’s broader contributions to culture. Picturing Mary extends, in particular, the humanist focus of Divine and Human: Women in Ancient Mexico and Peru, a large-scale exhibition organized by NMWA in 2006.

The Picturing Mary exhibition is curated by Monsignor Verdon, in consultation with Kathryn Wat, chief curator, NMWA; and facilitated by Hugh Dempsey, former director of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, Washington, D.C.

Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea is organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., with the support of MondoMostre, Rome. The exhibition is made possible with lead support from several anonymous donors, Alejandra and Enrique Segura, and Paul and Rose Carter. Additional funding is provided by Albert Baker Knoll, Albert Halprin and Janice Obuchowski, Bertha Soto Braddock, and others. NMWA gratefully acknowledges its partnerships with the Embassy of Italy and The Catholic University of America.

Exhibition Highlights

Picturing Mary will offer insight into the manner in which both female and male artists conceptualized their images of Mary. The exhibition features the work of four women artists: Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orsola Maddalena Caccia and Elisabetta Sirani.

“Although women artists during the Renaissance and Baroque periods were expected to focus on still life or portraiture, Picturing Mary demonstrates the intriguing ways in which women artists engaged with the narratives and symbolism that developed around the subject of Mary,” said NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling. “Both female and male artists contributed to the rich and varied visualization of Mary in these periods.”

In one of the earliest works in the exhibition, Puccio Capanna, a student of Giotto, depicted an enthroned Mary as Queen of Virgins. She is surrounded by female saints, a grouping that alludes to Mary’s position as a model of virtue and faith for all women. Early regal depictions of Mary prevailed until the concept of Mary as an approachable, empathetic persona began to take hold in medieval monastic communities.

Fra Filippo Lippi’s Madonna and Child (1466–69) was made for the influential Medici family, patrons of the arts who helped foster the Italian Renaissance. The artist’s image of Mary reveals wealthy Florentines’ desire for a Madonna who reflected their own lives: the Virgin is dressed in a rich brocade gown and a head scarf trimmed with gold and pearls. The mother and child’s touching cheek-to-cheek pose first appeared in Florentine sculptures of the same period.

Picturing Mary offers the first opportunity to see two mid-15th-century works by northern Italian artist Cosmè Tura side by side. A painting of the Madonna and Child on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and a related terracotta relief attributed to Tura from the Grimaldi Fava Collection in Italy both depict the Virgin with elongated fingers and a wide forehand. These deliberate distortions were meant to signify Mary’s spiritual intensity.

Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna and Child (1480–81) depicts Mary and Jesus in a domestic setting as Mary reads from a book of prayers. Her melancholy expression and the darkening sky beyond the window suggest Mary’s premonition of Christ’s death. Botticelli was favored by the leading aristocratic families of Florence and enjoyed the patronage of Pope Sixtus IV.

Around 1525, while developing designs for one of the Medici chapels in Florence, Michelangelo created a large drawing of the Madonna and Child. Visible in the face of the Virgin is an underdrawing, which reveals that Michelangelo originally portrayed her looking down toward the nursing infant Christ. The artist’s final decision to turn Mary’s head away from Jesus suggests that he wished to communicate Mary’s premonition of her son’s death.

Considered the most important woman artist before the modern period, Gentileschi was the first woman to run a large studio with many assistants and was also the first woman follower of Caravaggio. Her life story has inspired a number of contemporary novels and films. Gentileschi’s Madonna and Child (1609–10) depicts Mary as a nurturing peasant woman. With Jesus wrapped in a plain cloth and a barefooted Mary wearing simple, everyday clothes, Gentileschi presents a markedly humble conception of the Virgin.

Sirani’s Virgin and Child (1663), part of NMWA’s collection, portrays Mary not as a remote queen of heaven, but rather as a very real young Italian mother. She wears a turban favored by Bolognese peasant women and gazes adoringly at her plump baby. When Sirani died at 27, she had already produced two hundred paintings, drawings and etchings. She became famous for her ability to paint beautifully finished canvases so quickly that art lovers flocked to her studio to watch her work. Her portraits and mythological subjects, especially her images of the Holy Family and of the Virgin and Child, gained her international fame.

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Related images
  1. Sassoferrato (Giovanni Battista Salvi), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), ca. 1650; Oil on canvas, 52 3/8 × 38 5/8 in.; Vatican Museums, Vatican City; inv. 40396
  2. Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1466–69; Tempera on wood panel, 45 1/4 × 28 in.; Provincia di Firenze, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence
  3. Federico Barocci, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Il Riposo durante la Fuga in Egitto), also called Madonna of the Cherries (La Madonna delle Ciliegie), 1570–73; Oil on canvas, 52 3/8 × 43 1/4 in.; Vatican Museums, Vatican City; inv. 40377
  4. 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
  5. Cosmè Tura, attrib., Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), ca. 1460–70; Terracotta, 23 1/4 x 15 1/8 x 6 1/4 in.; Grimaldi Fava Collection
  6. 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