Virgin mother, daughter of your son
Humbler and higher than any other creature…
You are she who so ennobled human nature
That nature’s very maker did not disdain
To himself be made by you.
The lines are an apt expression of the manifold contradictions embodied in the Christian mythology of Mary. “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea”, a new exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, sets out to explore these contradictions and their evolution in Christian religious imagery. The show brings together more than 60 works of Renaissance and Baroque Italian art, many on view in America for the first time.
Western art abounds with paintings and sculptures of the Virgin; indeed, until the 18th century, she was the single most frequently depicted female figure. But it is unusual to see so many together, organised not around a style or a period but the simple idea of Mary herself. She is an idea that changes markedly over the centuries. Her myriad titles give some indication of this: Virgin of Virgins, Holy Mother of God, Queen of all Saints, Queen of Mercy, Queen of Peace. A list on a wall of the exhibit goes on. But even as Mary’s representations shift to emphasise different facets of her role in Christian history, her essential qualities remain the same: faithfulness, devotion, humility, purity.