Rest on the Flight into Egypt, also known as Madonna of the Cherries, by Federico Barocci, 1570–73.
Gracing cathedrals and canvases the world over, the Virgin Mary is an immortal muse. A subject of inspiration for artists since the sixth century, her image is iconic and universally seen as a symbol of womanhood and maternity, devotion and eternal love.
An exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” looks through the lens of Mary’s likeness to reveal the influences of her image by bringing together more than 60 Renaissance-and Baroque-era masterpieces—many on view for the first time in the United States—on loan from the Vatican Museums, Musée du Louvre, and other museums, churches, and private collections.
Visitors to the exhibition may immediately recognize Mary as a metaphor for spirituality, though the museum hopes viewers will discover the layers of political and social significance, even in well-known works by greats such as Botticelli or Michelangelo.
“One of the things I think the exhibition is going to do is deepen our understanding of the works we know and love,” says Kathryn Wat, chief curator at NMWA. “I hope that visitors to ‘Picturing Mary’ will appreciate the depth of content and meaning in these works. While they are beautiful and familiar, they also convey a very profound idea about womankind.”
For the first time, the museum created an online exhibition to complement the in-gallery experience, showing a “global Mary,” Wat says. The site illustrates, through an interactive map, how the image of Mary has been adapted around the world, including the Virgin of Guadalupe and Black Madonnas from Europe and the Caribbean.
Wat and exhibition curator Monsignor Timothy Verdon, director of Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, also studied the difference between how men and women artists have depicted Mary. The exhibition features four women artists—Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orsola Maddalena Caccia, and Elisabetta Sirani—at an institution that typically only shows the work of women artists.
Wat explains that “Picturing Mary” is part of an ongoing program of ambitious, large-scale loan exhibitions organized by NMWA that “study the humanist view of womankind… and this exhibition extends that focus.” December 5-April 12, 1250 New York Ave. NW, 202-783-5000