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Michelangelo’s ‘Mother of God’

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It is hard these days to get up close to the originals of the marble statues of the Virgin Mary by Michelangelo, one of the greatest (and outside Italy, rarest) of all Catholic artists.

Ever since his youthful "Pieta" in the Vatican was assaulted by a vandal in 1972, a Plexiglas shield has been in place to protect the statue, and a similar shield was put up around his "Madonna and Child" in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium, the only one of Michelangelo's sculptures to leave Italy during the Renaissance. If you are lucky enough to reach Bruges, you still won't get closer than about 15 feet away from the beautiful "Bruges Madonna," as it has come to be known.

And so it is a blessing that a full-scale bronze cast of the Bruges sculpture can be enjoyed barrier-free in the lower church of Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Although not all visitors will feel up to approaching the statue on their knees, that would be about the right height for viewing. It is clear from the downward glances of Mary and the Christ Child that sculptor intended the viewer's eye-level to be near the feet of the two just-under-life-size figures.

The Seat of Wisdom

What was so new about the Bruges Madonna? John Spike, who lectured on the work at the unveiling Dec. 7, the eve of the feast of the Immaculate Conception, revealed the idea behind its unique spiritual power. Previous depictions of the theme, including Michelangelo's own, had shown the Christ Child in His mother's arms. In this statue, the Child is standing, almost by Himself, loosely restrained by her left hand, and He appears to be stepping out into the world to embrace His destiny - the crucifixion and redemption of the human race.

The subject matter linking the Incarnation to the paschal mystery, Christmas to Easter, made the statue most apt for its intended location above an altar.

Michelangelo's composition derives, Spike showed, from the venerated theme of Mary as "Sedes Sapientiae," the "Seat of Wisdom," a devotional title emphasizing her status as Mother of God. Skipping over more recent artists, the sculptor harked back to the massive Gothic-era statues of the enthroned Mary holding the standing Child. What he added to this ancient iconography was motion, as Jesus strides into the worshipper's space.

A few yards away from the "Bruges Madonna" bronze at the Shrine is another lovely replica, a silver cast of the head of the Virgin of the "Pieta" that Michelangelo made in 1501. Between the two works, commented Spike, Michelangelo was carving his colossal statue of David.

The ornate style of the "Pieta," where the Virgin is almost girlish in her delicacy, gave way to a more mature head of the Virgin in the Bruges piece of circa 1504, with its deeply pensive expression and simpler headdress based on antique Greco-Roman models.

Spike was appointed in 2007 to the faculty of the master's program in sacred art history jointly offered by the European University of Rome and the Pontifical Athenaeum. Every Italian priest who wishes to build a church must now first qualify by taking this sacred art history course.

Mysterious history

The professor, who has written award-winning books about Caravaggio, Fra Angelico and Masaccio, and has a Michelangelo book in the works, told the puzzling history of the "Bruges Madonna." Some scholars believe that Michelangelo originally intended it for the Piccolomini altar in Siena Cathedral. Spike doubts this theory. Whatever the origin, the artist sold it in 1505 to the Mouscron brothers, wealthy cloth merchants who shipped it to Bruges.

Michelangelo instructed his associates in Florence to guard the marble Virgin carefully and hide it from prying eyes. He did not want to be copied, especially not by the ambitious 22-year-old Raphael, then in Florence. But Raphael must have gotten a peek at the "Bruges Madonna" anyway. There is proof right here in Washington's National Gallery of Art, where two of Raphael's great Madonna and Child compositions, a full-scale drawing of the Virgin and Child in a meadow, and his "Alba Madonna" painting, adapt Michelangelo's idea of the Christ Child walking to embrace the passion.

The bronze "Bruges Madonna," on view in Washington until April 7, is the first of a planned limited run of 24 bronze replicas produced by the renowned Marinelli Foundry of Florence, which owns the only plaster cast of the marble original, made around 1932. (Such casts are now forbidden out of concern they might damage the originals.) The sponsors of the project hope to place them in churches, museums and universities.

Hamerman teaches Art and Catechesis at Christendom's Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010