Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), also called Madonna of the Book (Madonna del Libro), 1480-81; tempera and oil on wood panel, 22 7/8 x 15 5/8 inches; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; inv. 443
Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), also called Madonna of the Book (Madonna del Libro), 1480-81; tempera and oil on wood panel, 22 7/8 x 15 5/8 inches; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; inv. 443
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Although mentioned only seven times in the Gospels, the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in the Church have been debated, studied, defined and redefined during the Church’s 2,000-plus-year history. Since the beginning of the Church, Mary has been hailed and venerated for her unique role in God’s plan of salvation.  

She is the daughter of God, the mother of God and queen of heaven and earth. She is arguably the most famous woman who ever lived, and the woman most depicted in art over the past two millennia. 

“Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” an exhibition of more than 60 works of art focusing on Our Lady, opens Dec. 5 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. 

The exhibition was organized with the support of the Archdiocese of Washington, and is made possible in part through the generosity of individuals and foundations in the archdiocese.

Also, on Dec. 3, Cardinal Donald Wuerl clebrated a Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle that was offered in honor of the opening of the exhibit.

Writing in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibit, Msgr. Timothy Verdon, an American priest who curated the exhibit, noted that Mary’s “name was given to cathedrals, her face imagined by painters and her feelings explored by poets,” and the aim of the exhibit is to “explore the concept of womanhood as represented by the Virgin Mary, and the power her image has exerted through time.” 

“Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” features paintings, sculptures and a chasuble, a dalmatic and a triptych that come from collections around the world, including the Vatican Museums, the Louvre in Paris and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

“I looked for works that were important as art and that fit the categories I defined for the exhibition: Madonna and Child, Woman and Mother, Mother of the Crucified, Mary as Idea, A singular life, Mary in the life of believers,” Msgr. Verdon, told the Catholic Standard in an interview.

Msgr. Verdon is an art historian and priest in the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy, where he directs both that archdiocese’s Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage and the Cathedral Foundation Museum. He is also a canon of the cathedral in Florence.

The curator said that he chose the artworks “within a somewhat cohesive cultural framework: they're mostly Italian 14th, 15th and 16-18th century masterpieces.” He said he also chose art created by “a few very big names” – including Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio – because “it's interesting to see how the great geniuses treat ‘ordinary’ themes.”

The NMWA exhibition also includes works by four female artists: Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orsola Maddalena Caccia (an Ursuline nun), and Elisabetta Sirani.

The works of art examine every aspect of Mary’s life: Her birth, the Annunciation, her betrothal to Joseph, the Visitation, the birth of Jesus, the flight into Egypt, her sorrowful vigil at the foot of the cross, the entombment of her dead son, her death, her Assumption into heaven and her coronation as queen of heaven and earth are all lovingly depicted in the exhibit.

“Artists of the past showed Mary as a woman of faith, deeply thoughtful, deeply sensitive, capable of great courage and willing to risk,” Msgr. Verdon said. “As a mother, she is loving but also conscious of the risks to her son's life. She remains with Him even in his darkest hour. We can all learn from these things.”

Many of the pieces in the exhibit have never before been seen in the United States. The exhibit will only be presented in Washington. After it is concluded, these works by Renaissance and Baroque masters will return to their respective museums, churches and private collections, perhaps never to be presented again in this country.

Virginia Treanor, National Museum of Women in the Arts’s associate curator, noted in an interview with the Catholic Standard, that “Mary was seen as a paradigm of humility, chastity, and compassion. She was an idealized figure during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, both in terms of her character and appearance. Mary’s idealized physical beauty was meant to represent her interior beauty – the beauty of her soul.”

She pointed out how artists from different eras portrayed Mary in different ways. 

“The rise of humanism during the Renaissance led to images of Mary that were more relatable and accessible—different from the regal, queenly Madonnas depicted in the Middle Ages,” Treanor said.

“Picturing Mary” includes a partnership with The Catholic University of America, whose scholars will present a series of lectures in the spring of 2015 exploring the themes. Also, NMWA’s website (http://nmwa.org) will feature an online exhibition exploring global traditions in Marian imagery. 

Msgr. Verdon told the Catholic Standard that an exhibit about Mary is an appropriate subject for a secular museum such as the NMWA because “everyone, Christian or not, has a mother or would have wanted to, if one is an orphan. Everyone has social relations with women.”

“Mary is the most represented woman in the history of Western culture, and for centuries it was through her image that people expressed their ideas about womanhood and motherhood,” the priest curator said.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts, which opened in 1987, is the only museum solely dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in the visual, performing and literary arts.