Mary and the Colors of Motherhood

Paintings of Mary cradling her newborn son Jesus line the walls of Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea. This iconic “Madonna and Child” pose, the most prevalent visual representation of the two, was popularized during the 5th century following the Catholic Church’s sanctioning of the cult of Mary as Mother of God. The figures’ position, as well as the iconic shades of blue and red that Mary often wears, captures an expansive definition of motherhood. The Virgin Mary is not only mother to Jesus, but to all humanity.

Pontormo (Jacopo Carrucci) (Pontormo, near Empoli, 1494–Florence, ca. 1556/57), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1527; Oil on wood panel, 41 3/4 × 31 1/2 × 2 3/8 in.; Palazzo Capponi alle Rovinate, Florence

Pontormo (Jacopo Carrucci) (Pontormo, near Empoli, 1494–Florence, ca. 1556/57), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1527; Oil on wood panel, 41 3/4 × 31 1/2 × 2 3/8 in.; Palazzo Capponi alle Rovinate, Florence

But what does it mean to be a mother? Pontormo’s Madonna and Child (1527) reveals that motherhood involves physical and emotional closeness to one’s child. The large figures of Mary and Jesus dominate the picture plane. As Mary supports her son on her knee, the two figures hold hands and Jesus grabs his mother’s bodice. Their heads are tilted toward each other with tender, loving expressions. These elements both physically connect the Virgin and Jesus and imply the deep-rooted bond of mother and child. Pontormo’s use of this pose, with Mary’s hand supporting her son’s back, affirms her supportive and nurturing nature as a new mother.

Here, Mary wears her signature blue cloak with a red shirt underneath. Deeply rooted in Catholic symbolism, the blue of her cloak has been interpreted to represent the Virgin’s purity, symbolize the skies, and label her as an empress, for blue was associated with Byzantine royalty.

Her shirt’s red color signifies love, passion, and devotion—all traits connected with motherhood and exemplified by Mary’s presence at the Crucifixion.

Master of the Winking Eyes (act. Ferrara, ca. 1450–1470), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), ca. 1450; Tempera and gold on wood panel, 23 1/8 × 15 1/4 in.; Grimaldi Fava Collection

Master of the Winking Eyes (act. Ferrara, ca. 1450–1470), Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), ca. 1450; Tempera and gold on wood panel, 23 1/8 × 15 1/4 in.; Grimaldi Fava Collection

Like Pontormo’s painting, Madonna and Child (ca. 1450) by the Master of the Winking Eyes underscores Mary’s affectionate temperament and role as a mother. In this jovial scene, Mary tickles her son as her blue veil covers both of their heads. Their joyful expressions and close physical proximity capture the scene’s tenderness while the golden background further encapsulates the lighthearted, playful interaction. By humanistically depicting the Virgin laughing with her baby, the Master of the Winking Eyes portrays Mary as a relatable mother, showcasing her humanity. Her veil, draped over both heads, symbolizes the human nature that Christ inherited from his mother as well as their loving bond.

Unknown Artist (The Marches?, ca. late 15th century), Mother of Mercy (Madonna della Misericordia), 1494; Oil on wood panel, 68 1/2 × 35 3/8 in.; Municipality of Gradara, Gradara Castle, Marche Region, Italy

Unknown Artist (The Marches?, ca. late 15th century), Mother of Mercy (Madonna della Misericordia), 1494; Oil on wood panel, 68 1/2 × 35 3/8 in.; Municipality of Gradara, Gradara Castle, Marche Region, Italy

Beyond her role as Mother of God, Mary was often depicted as mother to all mankind. Mother of Mercy (Madonna della Misericordia) (1494) by an unknown artist illustrates this expansive definition of mother. The standing Virgin envelops the faithful beneath her cloak. This Mater Misericordiae or “Mother of Mercy” image type dates back to the 13th century, and it embodies the popular medieval idea of Mary as mother to all believers. The image of Christ over Mary’s womb hints at her elevated nature, and her superhuman size accentuates her importance.

Like in the other two paintings, in her role as a mother Mary is a maternal protector. In Picturing Mary, images capture the multifaceted nature of motherhood along with the multifaceted nature of the Mother of God herself.

—Margie Fuchs is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Picturing Mary is on view through April 13 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Plan your visit today!

Blood and Milk, Science and Culture: The Virgin as a Nursing Mother

The figure of the Virgin Mary has been used in art as an ideal woman, poetic beauty, and perfect mother. Young girls in the Italian renaissance were told to look up to the examples of the saints, particularly the Virgin, to guide their behavior. Her portrayal provides clues to the theology and culture prevalent at the time.

An example within Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea of the Virgin as exemplary mother is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Madonna and Child (1609–10), which shows the Virgin Mary with an exposed breast, nursing her son. This image reveals Renaissance ideas about the exemplary woman and the concern about nourishment and breastfeeding.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1609–10; Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 33 7/8 in.; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; inv. 1890 no. 2129

Earlier images of the Virgin with one exposed breast may have been especially poignant in times when Florence was affected by famines and food shortages. In 14th-century Italian images, the single exposed breast of the Virgin was a frequently defined part of Mary’s body. Viewers would not see her breastfeeding as a moment of exposure, but rather as a moment of nurturing and providing.¹ Between bouts of plague and food shortages in the face of a rapidly increasing population, diet and malnutrition were a considerable concern. The health and nourishment of children, especially a male baby such as Christ, would have struck viewers as an utmost concern.

This 17th-century Gentileschi image differs from the common medieval type. The body of the Virgin is clearly formed beneath the fabric of her gown; Christ sits between her knees and her trailing gossamer hair ribbons draw even more attention to her flesh. Her bare feet connote her humility and connection to the earth. Here, Mary is a humble mother who cares for her corporeal, human son by giving him the nourishment of her body. The child’s limbs are chubby, and his pink face suggests that he is healthy, well-fed, and cared for by his attentive mother.

Even as Gentileschi was painting this image, concerns about nutrition and breastfeeding within Renaissance culture were numerous. Humanists had rediscovered the antique medical theories of the Greek physician Galen, whose beliefs about reproduction gained attention. Rather than contributing to the matter or spirit of the child (this was attributed to the father only), Galen believed that the mother’s main contribution came from the breast milk that a child consumed. Further, he believed that the breast milk was heated, purified menstrual matter, and that it contained properties that could shape the personality and physical appearance of the child. An infant’s proper consumption of milk was seen as important.

For many upper-class Renaissance families, this concern about nutrition was directed toward finding a suitable wet-nurse, as her breast milk would be ingested. No matter what, people were concerned about the baby imbibing good traits rather than monstrous ones. Gentileschi’s Mary is obviously an elite woman, from her clothing, but the fact that she’s nursing her own baby could be seen as another sign of humility.

As Christ is nursed here by his mother, he not only imbibes her good qualities and exemplary characteristics, but her humanity. The image and their interaction would remind the viewer of Christ’s sacrificial flesh, and the Virgin’s own part in his passion.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Notes:

  1. Miles, Margaret. “The Virgin’s One Bare Breast: Nudiity, Gender, and Religious Meaning in Tuscan Early Renaissance Culture.” In The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, by Norma and Mary D. Garrard Bourde. Westview Press, 1992.

Recent library acquisitions: Bookplates by Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová

Museum visitors may remember the recent exhibition in NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center featuring wordless novels by the first woman graphic novelist, Czech artist Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová. Her bold black-and-white woodcuts visually narrate her life experiences, religion, and history.

Ex-Libris_Title-Page

Shortly after the show closed, the library obtained a 1925 limited-edition portfolio of copperplate and woodcut bookplates that the artist personally designed for others. Although not complete—the library’s copy is missing two bookplates—the 13 prints nonetheless represent a likely commercial activity for the artist, a means of making a living. Additionally, the copperplate prints reveal her talent and skill with drawing, a very different medium from woodcuts. These works contrast nicely with the accomplished graphic work evident in her woodcuts. Much like her wordless novels and illustrated stories, her bookplates focus on quiet domestic scenes. Many feature a person reading in a library or in a pastoral setting.

Venice, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (left), and Student, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (right)

Venice, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (left), and Student, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (right)

Bookplates commonly contained the Latin words ex libris, which translates from Latin as “from the books of” or “from the library of.” These consist of labels that bear the name of a book owner and are pasted inside the front covers (endpapers) of books as an expression of ownership. This tradition became popular after printed books in the mid-15th century created a need for owners to distinguish between multiple copies of the same book. In the late 19th and early 20th century, collecting reached its peak as people began to view bookplates as miniature works of art. They were valued as much for the artwork as for what the plates portrayed about the book owners.

In Europe, wood and copper engravings, etchings, and serigraphs were popular among designers.  Eastern European artists produced especially distinctive book plate designs due to the region’s rich tradition of graphic arts, artistic experimentation, and dramatic social upheaval. The independence of Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s homeland, Czechoslovakia, after nearly 400 years of Austro-Hungarian rule, inspired artists and writers to create a national image influenced by Expressionist, Surrealist, Constructivist, Art Nouveau, Futurist, and Art Deco movements popular throughout Europe during that time.

Books for Young People, Ex libris Mor.zem. ústavu nevidomých v Brne; Woodcut engraving (left), and Birthplace, Ex libris Anka Součková; Woodcut engraving (right)

Books for Young People, Ex libris Mor.zem. ústavu nevidomých v Brne; Woodcut engraving (left), and Birthplace, Ex libris Anka Součková; Woodcut engraving (right)

Despite these trends, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s work, at least in the material that the library currently owns, seems to focus on domestic scenes, life stories, religion, and history from abroad. Did she deliberately avoid creating darker works that expressed oppression and nationalistic ambitions? As the library continues to collect material on and by this important graphic artist, it will be interesting to find out.

All are welcome to look at these beautiful bookplates and the other materials by Bochořáková-Dittrichová. If you’re touring the museum, the library makes a great starting point on the 4th floor. Interesting exhibitions feature archival manuscripts, personal papers by women artists, rare books, and artist’s books. Reference Desk staff are always happy to answer questions and offer assistance. Open to the public weekdays 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1 p.m.–5 p.m.   

—Jennifer Page is the Library Assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Sofonisba Anguissola

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola (ca. 1532–1625), whose work is currently on view at NMWA in Picturing Mary.

1. All in the Family
Anguissola’s father, Amilcare, encouraged all of his children’s artistic pursuits. Sofonisba began her artistic training alongside her sister Elena, but it was her younger sisters Lucia and Europa who truly followed in their sister Sofonisba’s footsteps by pursuing careers as painters.

Sofonisba Anguissola (Cremona, ca. 1532–Palermo, 1625), Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556; Oil on canvas, 26 × 22 3/8 in.; Muzeum-Zamek, Łańcut; inv. 916MT

Sofonisba Anguissola (Cremona, ca. 1532–Palermo, 1625), Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556; Oil on canvas, 26 × 22 3/8 in.; Muzeum-Zamek, Łańcut; inv. 916MT

2. Mystifying Michelangelo
While Michelangelo didn’t officially take on Anguissola as a student, letters to him from Anguissola’s father show he gave advice to the young artist. He particularly praised Anguissola’s ability to render a crying boy in Boy Bitten by a Crayfish.

3. Like a Virgo
Anguissola often described herself as “virgo,” a young woman or virgin, in the Latin inscriptions she included on her self-portraits. In Self-Portrait, ca. 1556 the full inscription reads: “The maiden Sofonisba Anguissola, depicted by her own hand, from a mirror, at Cremona.”

4. Royal Affair
Anguissola’s talent eventually caught the attention of the wealthy Spanish court. In 1559, Phillip II of Spain invited Anguissola to court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabella. While there, Anguissola painted portraits of the royal family, gave the queen drawing lessons, and cared for the infantas.

5. So Nice We Showed It Thrice
NMWA’s 1995 exhibition Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman as well as Italian Women Artists in 2007 featured Anguissola’s Self-Portrait at the Easel. If you missed it, it’s back for Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea at NMWA, on view through April 12, 2015.

—Ashley Harris is the assistant educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  

Go Global with Mary

Did you know that NMWA launched its first-ever online exhibition, A Global Icon: Mary in Context, in conjunction with Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea?

NMWA’s digital engagement and curatorial teams collaborated with the Google Cultural Institute to present an online collection of images of Mary from around the world. The museum has been working with Google since joining the Google Art Project in March and being a pilot partner in Chromecast Backdrop since October.

OnlineExhib_Screenshot-main_page

Take a tour of Mary in Context—the online exhibition is divided into six thematic sections that mirror Picturing Mary: Madonna and Child, Woman and Mother, Mother of the Crucified, Mary as Idea, A Singular Life, and Mary in the Life of Believers. Within each section, a short educational video introduces the theme, followed by a closer look into 3–4 artworks. Online visitors can examine these artworks in great detail and learn about Mary’s impact and significance to various cultures.

Left: Unknown artist, Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, 18th century; Wood, ivory, pigment, gilding, gessoed cloth, and silver, 25 7/8 x 27 x 10 1/4 in.; Brooklyn Museum, Frank L. Babbott Fund; inv. 42.384; Right: Unknown artist, Chapter 19 of Qur'an (Surat Maryam), 15th century; Ink and pigments on thin laid paper, 15 3/4 x 12 3/16 in.; Walters Art Museum; inv. W.563.274B

Left: Unknown artist, Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, 18th century; Wood, ivory, pigment, gilding, gessoed cloth, and silver, 25 7/8 x 27 x 10 1/4 in.; Brooklyn Museum, Frank L. Babbott Fund; inv. 42.384; Right: Unknown artist, Chapter 19 of Qur’an (Surat Maryam), 15th century; Ink and pigments on thin laid paper, 15 3/4 x 12 3/16 in.; Walters Art Museum; inv. W.563.274B

Echoing Picturing Mary, the online exhibition provides a historical context of the Virgin Mary, highlighting artwork spanning the 12th–19th centuries. These images represent a wide array of artwork about Mary, including the Black Madonna and Our Lady of Guadalupe. The online exhibition was curated to include a diverse range of mediums—from Chinese porcelain to Indian manuscripts to African pendants.

Long_Gallery

Explore near or far! Check out the online exhibition and NMWA’s other online features, including an interactive preview of Picturing Mary and a YouTube playlist of related videos about Mary from Khan Academy’s Smarthistory, from the comfort of your home or at NMWA. These digital offerings are now available in the museum’s galleries for the first time.

—Laura Hoffman is the Manager of Digital Engagement at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

Orsola Maddalena Caccia: “Picturing Mary” as a Renaissance Nun

Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea focuses on themes of femininity, motherhood, and ideal women expressed through the image of the Virgin Mary. The lives of women artists whose work is on view, including the Ursuline nun Orsola Maddalena Caccia, illuminate women’s varied roles in their culture.

St. Luke the Evangelist in the Studio (San Luca Evangelista nello Studio), ca. 1625; Oil on canvas, 109 × 74 3/8 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

St. Luke the Evangelist in the Studio (San Luca Evangelista nello Studio), ca. 1625; Oil on canvas, 109 × 74 3/8 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

Some of the earliest known female painters of the Italian Renaissance were nuns. Religious orders often encouraged nuns to create art as a means of devotion, as well as a means of financial support for their institution. Caccia is an example of a successful nun-as-painter.

Orsola Maddalena Caccia (Moncalvo, Italy, 1596–1676),was born Theodora. Like the more familiar Artemisia Gentileschi, who was trained as a painter by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, Caccia was trained by her father, Guglielmo Caccia, who created large-scale religious works. She was renamed Orsola when she took her vows and entered an Ursuline convent in 1620. Five years later, she joined the Ursuline convent in Moncalvo, which was founded by her father. Although five of her sisters joined her in the convent, only Orsola and her sister Francesca became painters. None of her sister’s work remains, but viewers can still find many of Orsola’s artworks in the spaces for which they were commissioned.

Caccia’s father’s influence on her career persisted even after his death: Guglielmo left artistic tools and drawings for his daughters at the convent for their use after his death. Despite the steady business of painting at the convent, his will stipulated that these tools be returned to his male heirs after all six of his daughters had passed away.

Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Madonna col Bambino e Sant’Anna), ca. 1630s; Oil on canvas, 113 × 72 7/8 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Madonna col Bambino e Sant’Anna), ca. 1630s; Oil on canvas, 113 × 72 7/8 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

Despite this dynamic, Orsola’s paintings provide evidence of female agency in art. Painting was encouraged in the Ursuline order, as it provided a means of support for the religious institutions. She became abbess and organized a painting studio within the convent. She created flower paintings during this time, as well as large-scale religious works and altarpieces, many of which feature carefully detailed renderings of still-life objects. These act as small reminders of the daily lives of the painting’s subjects; for example, a painting of the birth of John the Baptist is made all the more real by the delicately painted stoneware that litters the foreground, and Caccia also included details showing the exact foods served to women who had just gone through labor.

Orsola Maddalena Caccia’s work provides important examples of paintings created for patrons who sought artwork made by a female religious artist. Her careful consideration of the details of place and scene gave her a unique voice among the heavily male-driven art world of Renaissance Italy.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Click here to learn more and plan your visit to Picturing Mary, open through April 12, 2015.

NMWA to be Awarded 2015 Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom

The Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom announced today that it has chosen to honor the National Museum of Women in the Arts with its annual award. NMWA will be the first U.S. organization to be presented this award, which will take place during a ceremony in Paris on January 9, 2015.

Simone de Beauvoir; Photo by Pierre Boulat, collection Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir; Photo by Pierre Boulat, collection Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), French philosopher, novelist, essayist, and author of The Second Sex in 1949, was a major theorist and feminist of the 20th century. Throughout her life she demonstrated her full support of the defense of women’s freedom. The Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom was created in 2008 to mark the 100th anniversary of Simone de Beauvoir’s January 9, 1908, birthday. Each year the prize is awarded to laureates who are selected by an international jury. The prize is supported by the Institut français, the Mairie de Paris and Paris Diderot University.

“The National Museum of Women in the Arts is extremely honored to receive the prestigious Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom,” said NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling. “NMWA is dedicated to providing a platform for women’s free expression and filling the void in recognition of women artists past, present, and future. The museum empowers women and girls through inspirational examples in the arts and connects great art and ideas by women to people around the world.”

NMWA visitors; Photo by Dakota Fine

NMWA visitors; Photo by Dakota Fine

NMWA was founded in 1981 with the singular mission to bring to light remarkable women artists of the past while also promoting the best women artists working today. The goal of this mission is to directly address the gender imbalance in the presentation of art, therefore assuring great women artists a place of honor now and into the future. NMWA remains the only museum in the world solely dedicated to recognizing women’s creative achievements.

Judy Chicago next to Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937, in NMWA’s collection galleries

Judy Chicago next to Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937, in NMWA’s collection galleries

Renowned feminist artist Judy Chicago has long supported the museum: “My study of women’s history made me acutely aware of the fact that women’s achievements along with too much of women’s cultural production has been erased, marginalized, under-recognized, or in other ways diminished. My understanding of this tragic loss led me to devote my life to creating art that could help change this situation so that women’s accomplishments would become a permanent part of our cultural heritage,” said Chicago.

“When Wilhelmina and Wallace Holladay founded the National Museum of Women in the Arts, I became a staunch supporter. I long for the day when women around the world are accorded equal rights, equal pay, and equal recognition in all aspects of human life. Until our art museums, schools, and universities fully integrate women’s history, experiences, and perspectives into their collections and curricula we desperately need our own institutions so that our contributions will be honored in the same way as men’s have been. My congratulations to the museum on this well-deserved award.”