The Holy Mother is playfully gripping the baby Jesus while she gazes directly at the viewer with smiling eyes, as if to share her joy. Her humanity shines from this tempera and gold painting by the unnamed “Master of the Winking Eyes.” This is one of sixty depictions of Mary in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, an exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) that traces artistic portrayals of Mary from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century. Developed in partnership with the Catholic University of America, the exhibit will not travel from the NMWA, which is remarkable given the jewel box of art works it includes, many shown in the United States for the first time.
The works demonstrate a broad range of media – paintings, prints, ceramics, and wood carvings – to depict the great moments in Mary’s life, ranging from Lorenzo di Credi’s Annunciation and Fra Lippi’s luminescent Madonna and Child to Maison Samson’s heartrending Deposition from the Cross to Rembrandt’s drawing Death of the Virgin and Dürer’s Assumption.
The exhibit is heavy on Renaissance and Baroque works, notably a Vasari Crucifixion and an exquisite small tempera by Botticelli. Outstanding is Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, painted by the artist in his early twenties. The work shows the baby Jesus and Mary asleep, while an angel stands, his winged back to the viewer, playing violin from a score held by Joseph. Although this early work does not display the dramatic light study for which Caravaggio is famous, it is nonetheless important as one of his first large canvases.
From Michelangelo there is a single drawing in red and black chalk, on loan from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. In this Madonna and Child, Mary looks alertly up at something in the distance. Only the arm of the baby Jesus is fully executed, but the other details are vivid, drawn with the deft line that distinguishes Michelangelo’s work. This is a flesh-and-blood Mary with the liveliness of the figures in the Sistine Chapel.
Since the Reformation, Westerners’ attitudes to Mary have too often been polarized: she is attacked or defended as a sign of division between Catholics and Protestants. Picturing Mary helps us recover the real Mary – not a polemical symbol but a real woman of history, one whose relationship to Jesus remains forever unique. This exhibit provides a beautiful door through which to meet the very human Mother of God.