WASHINGTON (RNS) She was a simple Jewish girl who became a mystical bride, whose love for her miraculous son embodied a message of love from God.
She was the new Eve, the woman offered paradise -- eternal salvation -- who made the right call by saying "yes" to God.
The Virgin Mary, possibly the most frequently imagined woman in all of Western art, takes center stage in a landmark Washington exhibition of more than 60 sculptures, portraits, prints and other works by acclaimed Renaissance and Baroque artists on loan from the Vatican and other leading museums and private collectors.
"Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea" opens Friday (Dec. 5) and runs through April 12 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, just in time for Christmas and stretching past Easter.
The theme of the show is Mary's symbolic power, expressed in the arts. She touches people's hearts "not only in a religious dimension but in a human dimension," a way of seeing the human experiences of love, devotion and suffering, said Marian scholar Monsignor Timothy Verdon. He's a curator for the show, director of the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence and a co-author of the exhibit catalog.
Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott called the Christmastime crowd-magnet exhibit a bit too merry Mary, although "Mary isn't entirely a feel-good icon." His review concluded with a complaint that modern and controversial art works were omitted and that the show's overall message falls narrowly within the Roman Catholic tradition.
A companion online exhibit, A Global Icon: Mary in Context, offers images from beyond Europe, in partnership with the Google Cultural Institute. The Museum is also offering an online highlights tour of the D.C. exhibit and there will be scholarly programs offered by The Catholic University.
Some highlights from the show and their descriptions from Verdon and the exhibit catalog:
In this Botticelli image (above), the Christ child is centered between Mary and the book, a physical representation of an idea, said Verdon, that Christ was "God's Word made flesh" to enter human history.
And Mary's mournful look, like the tiny nails in Jesus' fist and his bracelet ring of thorns, shows her awareness that her son "will suffer, as will we all."
Even in the knowing context of biblical history, when Mary learns early of her son's fate, she's still a young mother.
Sirani, one of four female artists in the exhibit, offers an image of the duo at play (above). It's one of several that show them being playful, giggling, teasing, enjoying the delightful side of love, said Verdon.
What does it mean to see Mary reflected in your own life?
Sofonisba Anguissola's dignified, almost defiant self-portrait was made at a time when it was rare for a woman to have a career in the arts, much less to show herself in the status of someone who paints the Madonna and child.
It is as if the artist says to the viewer, "I can do this, too," said Verdon.
Tiepolo's lush portrait of the decorously dressed Mary shifts the viewer away from the 14th-century portrayal of Mary as the queen of heaven to the 18th-century focus on the prince in her arms.
Several works in the exhibit portray the theme of Mary and her infant's flight into Egypt. Above, in a "sunny and delightful scene" by Barocci, they are relaxed, enjoying an interlude by a stream beneath a cherry tree, said Verdon. Mary is shown as both a silken-dressed aristocrat and a simple country woman with a straw hat. And Christ is simply a happy child.
Showing Mary as a real woman, a real mother, portrays a "view of the earthly world and humankind as the most compelling manifestation of God's love," as the curators note in the exhibit.
This early masterpiece by Caravaggio (above), “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” draws on apocryphal “Infancy Gospel” versions that describe the Holy Family accompanied by angels on their journey.
The viewer first focuses on the dominant figures of a rustic Joseph who holds the music for an angel musician. But then the eyes rest on Mary and her sleeping child, "so delicate and sweet."
And so telling. Sleep is often shown as a foreshadowing of death. Verdon marveled that Caravaggio, a violent and troubled artist, could reveal a believer's soul in this work.
Below are three images from around the world -- including one showing title pages of the Quran chapter named for Mary -- that are part of the online companion exhibition.