Meet Mary: An Experience of Sacred Art

Danielle PetersDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Ever since I had heard about the exhibit “Meet Mary” hosted by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), Meet Mary1I decided to add this event to my itinerary when going to Washington for the Right for Life March. And I am very glad I did!

The encounter with Mary took place in a most beautiful setting; a 78,810-square-foot Washington landmark, formerly a Masonic Temple, near the White House. Refurbished in 1983 in accordance with the highest design, museum, and security standards, NMWA truly offers an ambience fitting to the most honored woman throughout history.

Already from afar, the banner covering the façade of the museum with an image of Our Lady and the large letters “Meet Mary” immediately caught my eye. It awakened sentiments of joy and expectation to be able to actually encounter the Mother of God in our nation’s capital! And indeed, immersing myself into the sacred and uplifting atmosphere of this special encounter fared like an oasis for body and soul amidst the busy and noisy traffic I left behind.

While it is difficult to convey the beauty and elegance of the exhibit, I would like to highlight some aspects which uniquely facilitate a personal encounter with Our Lady. Before viewing the exhibit on the second floor of the museum, there is the possibility of a virtual tour that explores the concept of womanhood within the social and sacred functions Mary’s image has influenced through time. This comprehensive view featuring global representations of Mary, including the Virgin of Guadalupe and Black Madonnas from Europe and the Caribbean, is accessible online and I highly recommend it:

Encountering Mary in paintings, on vestments, in a statue made of Chinese porcelain, in Indian manuscripts, or in Latin American representations, stretches our imagination regarding both her person and mission. The featured works of both female and male artists from the Renaissance and Baroque eras accentuate Mary as an approachable person, as for example in a marble relief showing Mary as a nursing mother who is tickling her laughing baby boy; or as a woman who interacts with her extended family and later with Jesus’ disciples. Prior to the Renaissance, most artists depicted Mary “above the clouds,” as a person who is somewhat removed from the life and realities of the common folk. Partly encouraged by religious orders at that time, the conceptualization of Mary between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries encouraged artists to emphasize Christ’s human sensibility, and, in turn, to depict his mother in more down-to-earth terms. Thus the more than 60 paintings, sculptures, and textiles from the Vatican Museums, Musée du Louvre, Galleria degli Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, as well as other public and private collections—some exhibited for the first time in the United States—create a unique encounter with Mary who is both servant and Queen; virgin, mother, and wife; daughter and friend. Each of these roles need to be pondered in the religious and social environment at “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4)

The spacious display areas provide a conducive ambience to consider six aspects related to Our Lady: Madonna and Child; Woman and Mother; Mother of the Crucified; A Singular Life; Mary as Idea; and Mary in the Life of Believers. Prayers, hymns, the Litany of Loreto, or poems written in large letters on a wall near or opposite the works of art contribute to a personal encounter with Mary of Nazareth. Since most of the artwork and explanations can be viewed online, I would like to highlight several pieces which greatly enriched my meeting with Mary.

Meet Mary2To begin with, I was taken in by this cosmic presentation of the Annunciation with Six Prophets by an unknown Artist (Flanders, late 16th c.), which was hitherto never shown in the U.S. It is said that heaven and earth stopped breathing to await the Virgin’s response to the angel. This print by Cornelis Cort of a fresco by Federico Zuccari in Santa Maria Annunziata al Collegio Romani (which was destroyed mid-17th century), captures well the breathtaking moment. Above Mary and the angel, we are allowed to take a glimpse into eternity, where the Father takes the highest place; beneath Him, the Dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, is ready to overshadow Mary. The space between the Holy Spirit and the Annunciation scene is illumined by the bright light of the Sun, the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Hovering above the clouds is a multitude of angels; all focused either on God Father or on the dialogue between the angel and Mary. Flanking her and Gabriel are six Old Testament prophets who foretold Christ’s birth.

Pondering this dramatic portrayal, God’s faithfulness to His covenant with humanity comes to mind. Knowing our fickleness like no one else, God takes the initiative one more time, asking a teenager for her consent to cooperate in the mystery of Christ. From a purely natural point of view, God’s message appears to be an unreasonable request for an adolescent. Yet, the drama picturing the fullness of time tells us that Mary is not just the girl of Nazareth. Her countenance, her name—full of grace—her fiat, everything is placed in the rays of the Sun. She is the new Eve, virgin and mother, completely ready, entirely surrendered, and through her free consent she is intimately interwoven in God’s plans, like no other human being ever was or will be. Her answer, given with the obedience of faith, teaches us that God in a way makes Himself vulnerable and dependent on us. He waits for our answer of love and surrender before actualizing His salvific plan. There are many possibilities to say “Yes: to God in life or to refuse Him. Adam and Eve, imprisoned in the left and right upper corners of the picture, are a reminder that we all play a part in the drama of salvation.

Meet Mary3In the section Mary in the Life of Believers we come across the work of one of the three women artists featured in the exhibit. About Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625) the museum guide explains:

[She] was the first known woman artist to achieve international fame. At a time when women were discouraged from rendering theological subjects (because they were thought to be too challenging for their intellect), Sofonisba depicted herself painting the Madonna and Child in a particularly affectionate pose.

Completed in 1556, the Self-Portrait at the Easel draws attention to the artist’s skill of using implied or actual lines to attract the viewer into the scene. Named after Hannibal’s granddaughter, who was known for her beauty and charm, Sofonisba created equally beautiful and charming work, “likely inspired by St. Luke who, according to legend, painted the Virgin from life.”

Meet Mary4The image of Mary presented in the Gospel of St. Luke contributed to the popular tradition that the evangelist not only painted her literary image but also produced a visual representation  of her life. In the section Madonna and Child we find such a rendering. St. Luke the Evangelist in the Studio (ca. 1625) was painted by another female artist featured in the exhibit, Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596–1676). An Ursuline sister, Caccia, who “ran a bustling painting studio in her convent in northern Italy, is represented by six paintings in the exhibition, the largest number of her works ever to have been exhibited in the United States. Her large-scale Marian compositions are highly animated, packed with architectural details, still life elements, and myriad figures that expand imaginatively upon Mary’s life.” Unique to the picture on the left is Caccia’s depiction of St. Luke not only as a painter but also as a sculptor of Mary and Child. The open and closed books on the shelf behind St. Luke, the ox, and the angels, symbolize the writing and person of the evangelist, while the painting of a town’s silhouette, as well as the flowers on the ground and table, point to Mary’s origin and virtue.

Encountering Mary through the lens of these two female artists reminds us that each one of us holds an image of Mary in his or her heart. We are invited to carve this image within ourselves and to allow it to radiate through our being and acting.

Meet Mary5Finally, since we are looking forward to Pope Francis’ coming to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, let us meet Mary as wife and mother of the Holy Family and as a member of her extended family. The exhibit features a number of nativity illustrations. An ornate example is the enamel on copper Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1490–1500) from the Limoges Workshop in France.   Mary takes center stage and wears an expensive blue and gold cloak. Her crown is similar to that of the Magi, symbolizing her royal status. The jeweled flowers at the edge of the image enhance the eminence of this woman. St. Joseph’s raised arms seem to indicate his astonishment about the majestic guests visiting his humble abode. While he is puzzled by their appearance and extraordinary gifts, the infant Jesus on Mary’s lap eagerly accepts the gold from the king kneeling before him.

Meet Mary6My personal favorite among the representations of the Holy Family is the Nativity by Sister Orsola Maddalena Caccia. The explanation of the painting reads: “As if to avoid waking the sleeping infant Jesus, Mary leans forward in her chair to gently place him on a pillow, perhaps just having nursed him. This otherwise quaint domestic scene is attended by heavenly angels and the young Saint John the Baptist, who looks out at the viewer and gestures for silence.” St. Joseph, in a rather young portrayal of Jesus’ foster father, watches on; yet it is the mischievous look of Jesus’ cousin which adds to the charm of this idyllic family harmony. The cross he holds in his small hands is nevertheless a clear foreboding of the future of the newborn while the young John may be still unaware of his own mission as precursor.

The Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and St. John is a print by Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665). In her short life Sirani, who was trained by her father in the School of Bologna, produced more than two hundred paintings, drawings and etchings. The print on the left shows Mary and her relative Elizabeth together with their two sons, while St. Joseph is seen in the background holding his carpentry tools.

Conspicuous to all three images of Mary’s family is the rather remote position of St. Joseph. Yet, even while standing in the background, he is silently waiting, observing, pondering the mystery and his role therein.

In contrast, the painting by Federico Barocci (Urbino, ca. 1535–1612) picturing the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1570–73), focuses on the father-child relationship. Known for thoughtful and sentimental images of the young Holy Family, Barocci presents Mary as a peasant woman in a relaxed position. She has removed her straw hat and rests her bare feet as she gathers water. It appears as if Joseph wanted to allow his wife time to refresh herself with the water from the wellspring. Meanwhile he distracted his baby boy with cherries from the huge tree in whose shadow the Holy Family can find some respite amidst their worries about the unknown future. The painting illustrates the importance of the father in the family and recalls Pope Francis’ encouragement to fathers to spend time playing with their children, thereby developing a personal and lasting relationship.

Iconic and devotional, but also laden with social and political meaning, my meeting with Mary was greatly enhanced through the depictions of all the artists, among them Botticelli, Dürer, Michelangelo, Pontorm, and Rembrandt. The invitation to meet Mary in our nation’s capital is still possible until April 12, 2015. For me it was time well spent.

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