One month left in 'Picturing Mary' exhibition

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"Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea," a world-class exposition of Marian masterpieces from Renaissance and Baroque Europe at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, closes April 12. Nearly 70 paintings, sculptures and textiles are on loan from the Vatican Museums, Musée du Louvre, Palazzo Pitti and other European and American institutions.

The exhibition, which opened at the start of Advent, showcases various artistic interpretations of Mary. Works by renowned painters like Caravaggio, Botticelli and Titian express a particular interest in Mary as a living, human mother, pointing to what curator Msgr. Timothy Verdon's considers Christian humanist leanings.

"God validates every positive aspect of our human experience," said Msgr. Verdon. "In the Christian belief, God wanted His Son to enjoy human life firsthand."

He used Andrea Pisano's "Madonna and Child" (c. 1348/49), a carved marble relief with majolica, as an example of Mary and Jesus' human behavior. In the relief, Baby Jesus teases His mother by playfully grabbing two of her fingers.

"Children do these surprisingly charming things, and they're completely unaware that they've done them," Msgr. Verdon said.

Another example of Mary and Jesus' human behavior stands out in Artsemisia Gentileschi's "Madonna and Child" (1609-10), which depicts the Holy Mother breastfeeding her baby.

The National Museum for Women in the Arts opened its doors in 1987 and has built a reputation on programming modern and contemporary art, often by living female artists. However, given the historical focus of this exhibition, most of the selected artists are male. The intent was to use Mary as a means for exploring the power of femininity as an artistic subject, not to highlight female artists.

There are a total of four female artists represented in "Picturing Mary." One is Sofonisba Anguissola, whose "Self-Portrait at the Easel" (1556) captures the artist fleshing out a scene of Jesus kissing Mary.

"Female artists, given the chance to depict themselves, bring something that male artists do not," said Msgr. Verdon.

Msgr. Verdon is the academic director of the Mount Tabor Centre in Barga, Italy, and director of the diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage, the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Centre for Ecumenism of the Archdiocese of Florence. Msgr. Verdon, who has lived in Florence for a half-century, recently authored the book Art & Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God (Paraclete Press), which focuses on the tradition of sacred art in Europe.

"I hope that people will take away the fascination that the female form, specifically Mary, has exerted over artists," said Msgr. Verdon. "The exhibit has a kaleidoscopic range over six galleries, showing that Mary is a varied, articulated and fecund theme … ("Picturing Mary") has an anthropological dimension that would appeal to everyone."

For an erudite supplement to the exhibit, consider going to the Catholic University in Washington's academic conference on Mary (March 20-22), which will feature Marian scholars from the U.S. and England.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015