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Art Review

Mary, as an Exemplar of Renaissance Humanism

by Bonnie James
January 2015

Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea
National Museum of Women in the Arts

Dec. 5, 2014-April 12, 2015

The National Museum of Women in the Arts has put together an intriguing exhibition, drawing from the works of some of the greatest artists of the 14th- 19th centuries in Europe, and the greatest art museums in Europe and the U.S. While the subject matter is limited to artworks that portray the Virgin Mary, they cover a wide range of episodes from her life, reflecting both stories from the New Testament, and others drawn from the rich imaginations of the artists themselves.

Yet, given the current state of the world, why would anyone be interested in spending a couple of hours looking at pictures of the Virgin Mary? What possible relevance could this have for us today? I don't have a great answer for that question, except that, as we face multiple crises--terrorism figures prominently in the headlines, as do economic woes, epidemic disease, dysfunctional governments, not least our own--it is good to be reminded that there is also beauty, creativity, and a optimism about the human condition, that can be found in great art. From that standpoint, this exhibit gives us much to appreciate.

Who Was Mary?

While the exhibit doesn't address this question, it helps to think about who the real Mary might have been, for she was certainly a real person, before she became a sacred figure. The fact is that the historical record is scarce to non-existent. The primary source for biographical information about her is the New Testament, especially the Gospel of Luke, where we first encounter her as a girl of perhaps 12-14, living in Nazareth, in Galilee with her parents Anne and Joachim. In this connection, it is important to recall that the gospels were written down decades after the death of Christ, and that the Gospel writers were not those whose names are attached to them--in other words, the writers were not around at the time of the events they are recounting.

That said: Our initial encounter with Mary, is when she is visited by the angel Gabriel, who announces to her that God has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah (the Christ)--the "Annunciation." Pretty much of a shock to a young girl, but Mary, who is traditionally portrayed reading a bible when the angel descends into her presence, and dutifully accepts God's will, saying, by Luke's telling, ``I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done unto me according to your word."

Figure 1 Gerard David: Annunciation

The Annunciation is one of the most frequently depicted images of Mary throughout the history of art--there are about a dozen in the exhibit, including the one pictured here (Figure 1) by the Netherlandish painter Gerard David c. 1490, from the Detroit Institute of Art.

According to Luke, the angel also reveals to Mary that her cousin (or close relative) Elizabeth, who, up till then, was barren, and is now, miraculously with child. When Mary hears this joyful news, she travels to Hebron to visit Elizabeth, who soon after, gives birth to John the Baptist, Jesus's cousin (``The Birth of John the Baptist'' is represented in a painting by Orsola Maddalena Caccia, ca. 1635, one of the six women artists featured in the exhibition.) The ``Visitation'' of Mary and Elizabeth is another episode often depicted in the Renaissance; this exhibit offers one by the Florentine artist Antonio del Pollaiuolo on a 15th-Century textile, from the Opera del Duomo, Florence; and another by the French Master of the Martinville Workshop, also late 15th- Century, paired with an ``Annunciation.''

We next find Mary accompanying her husband (they have married in the meantime), who must return to his birthplace in Bethlehem to pay his taxes, in compliance with a decree of the Roman Emperor Augustus. Mary gives birth there to a child who is named Jesus, in accordance with the instructions received from the angel Gabriel.

Figure 2 Federico Barocei: Flight into Egypt Figure 3 Giotto: Flight into Egypt

Here, the tale is taken up by Matthew: The family is visited by the Magi (three Wise Men from the East), who tell the Holy Family that King Herod intends to kill all the infants of the realm (known as the ``Massacre of the Innocents''), in reaction to the news, conveyed by the Magi, that the ``King of the Jews'' has been born in Bethlehem. The family flees, and the ``Flight into Egypt'' becomes another event which is frequently portrayed in art. Two versions, one, is by the degenerate, but skilled, Caravaggio, in his soft pornogranic style, from the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome; and another highly romantic one by Federico Barocei, ca. 1570, is also shown here (Figure 2). Compare the Barocei with that of the beautifully somber image of the ``Flight,'' by Giotto in a fresco (ca. 1305), from his ``Scenes from the Life of Christ,'' in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua (Figure 3). Recall that Mary and Joseph were fleeing from Bethlehem to save the life of their child. In Barocei's interpretation, the holy family seems to be on a carefree picnic on a lovely summer day, while Giotto (whose whose painting was done more than 250 years earlier, at the very dawn of the Renaissance) creates a sense of tension, as the party moves forward led by Joseph; above, an angel points the way.

Figure 4 Albrecht Dürer: Presentation in the Temple

At some point between the birth of Jesus, and the flight into Egypt, at the age of 40 days, Jesus is brought to the Temple by his parents for a ritual called the ``Presentation.'' Albrecht Dürer has depicted the Presentation in the Temple in a small woodcut of 1504-05 (Figure 4)--part of his series of the Life of the Virgin--on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Six of these woodcuts are on view here.

Mary's life then recedes somewhat into the background, as that of her son assumes center stage. One of her later appearances, as reported in the Gospel of John, is at the Wedding at Cana, where she suggests to Jesus that he perform his first miracle, and he famously turns the water into wine.

Mary is later portrayed as present at the Crucifixion, the Descent from the Cross, and holding the lifeless body of her son, which, while not recorded in the Gospel accounts, is a common motif in art--known as the Pietà--the most famous of which is undoubtedly the sculpture by Michelangelo in the Vatican.

Mary is later mentioned in Acts (1:26), along with the 11 Apostles, following the return from Mount Olive.

Figure 5 Rembrandt: Death of the Virgin

While her death is not recorded in the New Testament, the ``Death of the Virgin'' was frequently depicted, most notably by Dürer and Rembrandt. Rembrandt's etching, the Death of the Virgin' (1639) is also here (Figure 5), and in itself worth a visit to the museum.

In a piece of pure creative imagination (which, nonetheless owes a great deal to Dürer's woodcut, the Birth of the Virgin, which is also included in the exhibit), Rembrandt shows the dying Mary, in an ornate bed, beneath a large canopy; she is attended by the apostles, priests (rabbis), and other mourners, within a dramatically lit interior, as angels hover overhead. A doctor takes her pulse, as one of the attendants plumps her pillows and seems to offer smelling salts in an attempt to revive her. In the foreground, a rabbi consults a bible, preparing to give last rites.

Think of the irony! As the Thirty Years War, the religious conflict between Protestants and Catholicsm rages around him, Rembrandt presents Mary's death in a distinctly Judaic context.

Mary, Mother of Jesus

Undoubtedly, the most familiar of the subjects of Mary is that of the Madonna and Child, of which there are numerous in the exhibition. We will focus on three artists, each of whom represents a unique vision of the subject matter, while all belong to the second half of the 15th-Century Italian Renaissance.

Filippo Lippi: A Madonna and Child (Figure 6) by the Florentine artist Fra Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406- 69), from the late 1460s, will be familiar, at least in spirit, to most readers, who have seen similar images on Christmas cards, etc. In this work, which was commissioned by the wealthy and powerful Medici banking family, Lippi portrays an elegantly turned out Virgin, dressed in sumptuous, bejeweled fabrics, the latest fashions of the day, such as a Medici princess might have worn; she and the Christ child are seen within a beautifully rendered architectural niche decorated with gold panels, an opulent setting such as one might find within the rooms of a Medici palace.

Figure 6 Fra Filippo Lippi Madonna and Child Figure 7 Andrea Mantegna: Madonna of the Quarry

Like other 15th-Century Italian depictions of the subject (see also the Botticelli Madonna and Child in this exhibit), this Virgin and Child are pictured as fair-skinned, blonde, and blue-eyed, reflecting the contemporary notion of ideal feminine beauty. Yet all the richness of the setting, and the idealization of the dramatis personae are subsumed by the tender embrace between mother and child, who radiate innocence and purity, lifting the image above the mere material.

Fra Lippi was a Carmelite friar, who, despite his religious vows, produced a son, Filippino Lippi, who also became a notable painter. Despite his worldly inclinations, Filippo Lippi succeeded in producing sublime images like the one reproduced here.

Andrea Mantegna: Quite a different rendering of the subject is given to us by the Northern Italian genius, Mantegna (1431-1506). According to some sources, the Madonna of the Quarry (Figure 7), from the Uffizi in Florence; was, like Filippo's, commissioned by the Medici, in this case, Lorenzo, known as ``the Magnificent,'' who was also the sometime patron of several prominent Renaissance artists, including the sculptor Verrocchio (Leonardo's teacher), Leonardo himself, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. The usual date given for the painting the 1480s (although some date it as early as the 1460s).

Mantegna's Virgin, in contrast to Lippi's, is attired austerely in the traditional blue cape and red dress. The rocky promontory behind the figures can be seen to represent Calvary, or Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, thus foreshadowing his death. The overall impression is a severe one, which is reinforced by the rough, craggy outcropping behind the figures.

Figure 8 Mantegna: Lamentation Over the Dead Christ

It is possible to see, prefigured in the pose of the child, the Master's Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Figure 8), also painted sometime in the 1480s--it is impossible to say which of the two came first. In the ``Lamentation,'' Jesus has descended from the Cross, and is laid on a marble slab, his body about to be prepared for burial. On the left are Mary, now aged, and deeply grieving; behind her, barely visible is John the Evangelist, mouth agape in disbelief; and in the foreground, Mary Magdalene, who will annoint his body with oil from the alabaster jar to Christ's left.

Nothing like this image had ever appeared in a work of art before. Mantegna has dramatically foreshortened the body of the dead Christ, such that we (like the Magdelene at the foot of the cross) are unavoidably confronted by his wounds. Here is a Christ whose suffering is etched deeply on his face--a profoundly human Jesus--and in the expressions of the three witnesses. There is no escaping the reality of his sacrifice.

Now return to the Madonna of the Quarry. Note the similarly somber tone, reinforced by the muted coloring, but most of all, by the somber expression on Mary's face, echoed in that of the Child. Jesus seems to be trying to squirm off his mother's lap, eager to take up his mission, yet we can detect in his expression the foretelling of his later suffering and death.

It is also notable that Mantegna's Mary and Jesus look something like what they probably did. The darker hair and skin tones are more like those of the Jews in the Middle East of the time. Mantegna was of course familiar with the traditional Italian renderings of the Virgin and Child, but chose instead to portray them as they might really have really looked, thus, as in the Lamentation, bringing them closer to us.

The Laughing Madonna and Child

The last two works we will discuss here are of a very different mood than the other two. One, a Madonna and Child, ca. 1450, by the Master of the Winking Eyes from Ferrara (Figure 9), is reportedly based on the artist's observation of mothers playing with their young children. It portrays Mary and Jesus laughing, as Mary tickles the baby. Their closeness is reinforced by her veil, which extends to cover the head of Jesus, who wears a necklace and bracelets made of coral, which was believed to have protective properties.

Figure 9 Master of the Winking Eyes: Madonna and Child Figure 10 Andrea Pisano: Madonna and Child

An earlier work of the late 13th Century, a marble relief, from the Opera del Duomo, by Andrea Pisano (Figure 10), a student of the revolutionary master Giotto, mentioned earlier for his Scrovengi Chapel frescoes, is from the Opera del Duomo in Florence. Like the Master of the Winking Eyes, Pisano's Madonna and Child are both smiling, as she tickles him, and he clasps her hand with both of his; Mary tenderly embraces him in the most human of loving expressions between mother and child.

Jesus is never depicted as laughing in the Gospels, yet the delightfully joyful humanity of these two works is a hallmark of the Renaissance, as the rebirth of Classical humanism.


The exhibit is on view until April 12, 2015.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts is located at: 

1250 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20005 

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