Allusions in Picturing Mary

The art of Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea overflows with religious symbolism and iconography. Images of Mary hold a prominent place in Christian iconography and operate on two distinct levels: the literal and the metaphorical. Representationally, many of these images depict Marian Biblical scenes or quiet moments between mother and child. Yet many of the pieces in Picturing Mary are also full of subtle allusions to central religious teachings.

Luca della Robbia, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), also called Madonna of the Rose Garden (Madonna del Roseto), ca. 1450–60; Glazed terracotta; Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence; inv. R031

Luca della Robbia, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), also called Madonna of the Rose Garden (Madonna del Roseto), ca. 1450–60; Glazed terracotta; Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence; inv. R031

Flowers, fruits, and other everyday objects symbolize the purity of Mary. In Luca della Robbia’s Madonna of the Rose Garden (ca. 1450–60), white flowers surround the Virgin, signifying her purity and chastity.

Besides symbolizing purity, vegetation in other works, such as the fruit bowl in Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna of the Book (1480–81), carries diverse Christian allegorical meanings.

Botticelli’s cherries may represent either the Blood of Christ or allude to Paradise while the figs suggest the Resurrection and the plums show the love between mother and child.

Allusions to Christ’s fate reveal Mary’s early knowledge of his destiny. Mary’s distant gaze and solemn expression, seen in works such as Luca della Robbia’s sculpture Madonna and Child (ca. 1430) and Botticelli’s Madonna of the Book, conveys a deep sense of foreboding.

In Botticelli’s painting, the Virgin’s downcast eyes and pensive expression suggest her premonition of Jesus’s Crucifixion, furthered symbolized by the golden crown of thorns around Christ’s wrist and the three nails held in his right hand. Mary’s open mouth and wide-eyed look, as well as her tight grasp on baby Jesus in the sculpture by della Robbia, indicates knowledge of her son’s future. Other symbols, such as scenes of the Christ sleeping and the infant Saint John the Baptist holding a cross, are often interpreted as alluding to the Pieta and the Crucifixion.

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 × 15 5/8 in.; 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 × 15 5/8 in.; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; inv. 443

Jesus’s position on the canvas also allegorically reveals his dual nature and casts him as the way to eternal salvation. Christ divides Orsola Maddalena Caccia’s Nativity (ca. 1621–25) and Madonna with the Sleeping Christ Child (1620–25) into two realms: earth and heaven. In both works, the area to the left of Christ represents earth.

Here, Mary and a distant city are depicted in clear, vivid detail. To Christ’s right is heaven, symbolized by winged angels and a swirling, dreamlike cloudscape. Christ belongs to both of these worlds and, read left to right, the works demonstrate that he is the way to salvation.

Orsola Maddalena Caccia,  Nativity (Natività), ca. 1621–25;  Oil on canvas; Musei di Strada Nuova, Palazzo Bianco, Genoa; inv. PB 493

Orsola Maddalena Caccia, Nativity (Natività), ca. 1621–25; Oil on canvas; Musei di Strada Nuova, Palazzo Bianco, Genoa; inv. PB 493

In the Botticelli, Jesus’s location between Mary and the open prayer book symbolizes the Christian belief that Christ is the “word made flesh,” meaning that he embodies God’s grace and truth. By placing Jesus on his mother’s lap, Botticelli alludes to his humanity while simultaneously reinforcing Christ’s holiness through his proximity to the holy text.

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

Visit soon to find more symbols and allusions in person—Picturing Mary is on view at NMWA through April 13. 

5 Fast Facts: Andrea Higgins

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Andrea Higgins, whose work is currently on view at NMWA in the collection galleries.

Andrea Higgins (b. 1970)

1. Tantalizing Textiles
Higgins’s interest in fabric goes back to her childhood visits to Britex Fabrics in San Francisco. The textiles purchased and worn by her grandmother inspired her earliest abstract portraits.

Andrea Higgins, Jackie (India) and detail, 2003; Oil on canvas, 24 1/2 x 21 in; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Image courtesy the artist and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

Andrea Higgins, Jackie (India) and detail, 2003; Oil on canvas, 24 1/2 x 21 in; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Image courtesy the artist and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

2. Ladies First
In her “President’s Wives” series, each painting is named for a first lady. From Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hats to Hillary Clinton’s iconic pantsuits, these portraits not only represent the women they’re named for, but also the administration and history of which they were a part.

3. What’s in a Fabric?
On a trip to Indonesia, Higgins witnessed the effort women put into dressing for temple, hoping to attract the attention of the gods. This “ultimate power dressing” struck her as a parallel to the way the style of first ladies influences the public.

Andrea Higgins, Hillary, 2002; Oil on canvas, 52 x 40 in; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Image courtesy the artist and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

Andrea Higgins, Hillary, 2002; Oil on canvas, 52 x 40 in; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Image courtesy the artist and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

4. Picturing Fiction
In more recent work, Higgins’s portraits represent fictional characters and their surroundings. Rather than using photographs as inspiration, these paintings bring an author’s description to life.

5. Painstaking Process
In Higgins’s work, each “stitch” is built up as she applies paint layer by layer. From a distance, viewers see the overall pattern, but up close the thickness of the paint is evident, and so are the repetition and uniformity of her brushstrokes.

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

The Female Form through Female Eyes

Nearly 300 years apart, Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656) and French artist Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) both used their perspectives as women to capture the power and complexity of the female form in their art. Although they had extremely different artistic educations—Gentileschi was educated in her father’s Caravaggisti studio while Valadon was a model and student to Parisian avant-garde greats—the two progressively explored the physical and emotional worlds of women in their art.

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

Gentileschi and Valadon use drastically different approaches to portray the female state. Gentileschi’s Madonna and Child (1609–10), currently on view in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea presents an intimate portrait of Mary preparing to breastfeed her infant son. Madonna and Child captures the signature power of Gentileschi’s women through Baroque color and detail. The rich turquoise and pink of Mary’s clothes, as well as the intense use of shadow in the background, create a sense of dynamic realism and naturalism. Rather than overtly sexualizing Mary and constructing her as an object for masculine desire, Gentileschi uses Mary’s partial nudity to emphasize the maternal intimacy of the scene.

Her depiction of the female body’s strength, enhanced by Mary’s large size and dominance of the composition, reveals the reality—and necessity—of women in giving and sustaining life. The use of chiaroscuro also highlights the naturalism of the moment between mother and child, revealing the nurturing and maternal sides of Mary.

Suzanne Valadon, The Abandoned Doll, 1921; Oil on canvas, 51 x 32 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Suzanne Valadon, The Abandoned Doll, 1921; Oil on canvas, 51 x 32 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Valadon also explores the physical and psychological depth of women in The Abandoned Doll (1921) part of NMWA’s collection. In this secular scene, a mother dries off her naked adolescent daughter as the girl turns toward her handheld mirror, musing over her own reflection. Through the use of thick contours, intense color, and flattened planes characteristic of Post-Impressionism and Fauvism, Valadon constructs a modern representation of female identity. The unidealized figures of the mother, child, and the doll tossed on the floor represent three distinct stages of life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Reaching puberty, the girl disregards her doll and instead focuses on her reflection.

Although the viewer’s eye is drawn to the girl’s exposed breasts, she is not objectified. Instead, other elements, such as her hair bow and the bow of the doll, play off of each other to create an atmosphere that is more about the loss of youth than sexualizing the female body. Valadon’s perspective as a woman aided in this poignant physical and psychological depiction. By having the girl stare into the mirror, Valadon hints at both the vanity of youth and the psychological interiority of women, an idea that is even more striking given the figure’s nudity. Like Gentileschi before her, Valadon transformed the female body into a tool for providing insight into women’s experiences and perspectives.

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

Don’t miss your chance to visit NMWA and see Picturing Mary, on view through April 12!

Making the Video: A Behind-the-Lens Look at “A Global Icon: Mary in Context”

These days, everything seems to be going digital. Artwork is no exception to this change, and museums are taking notice.

With its first online exhibition, NMWA has joined other museums in embracing digital technology. A Global Icon: Mary in Context, complements the museum’s exhibition Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, now on view in the galleries. Through detailed images and videos, the online exhibition explores the portrayal of the Virgin Mary in artworks from around the world.

DT_1_Sirani-Great_Hall

Photography by Laura Hoffman

As the fall 2014 semester’s digital media intern, I was tasked with creating a series of six short videos for the online exhibition, delving into each thematic section plus an introductory video. Despite my past production experience, I wasn’t sure how shooting and editing seven videos would be possible with my two-day-per-week schedule and in less than three months’ time. However, with a plan of action and system of support, I was able to complete them just in time for the exhibition opening.

DT_2_SFS-Dix_Gallery

Photography by Laura Hoffman

For each shoot, we would set up the camera, microphones, chairs, and lights (always bringing extra lights in case one unexpectedly popped) hours before the museum opened to avoid capturing background noise from visitors. Despite our best efforts, sounds—from the *ding* of an elevator door to an ambulance’s blaring siren—would interrupt the shooting. The video’s museum-staff narrators would recite each line of the script at least three times to ensure one usable take.

DT_3_DG_VT-Library

Photography by Laura Hoffman

During this process, I began editing, piecing together the filmed footage with artwork images and music. At times, keeping track of the hours of footage, image positions, and potential music options was the most challenging part of the editing stage. Conversations between the digital engagement team, curators, and myself involved meticulous reviewing: Did an image move across the screen too quickly? Would panning across rather than zooming in flatter the artwork best? When should the music fade in and out so as to enhance the viewing experience?

By the end of my three-month internship, all seven videos had been exported and uploaded to the online exhibition, available through YouTube. When I walk into the introductory gallery on the museum’s ground level, I take pride in seeing the videos displayed on the installed iPads. It is exciting to see NMWA using technological innovations both on its gallery walls and through the digital realm.

—Dorothea Trufelman was the fall 2014 digital media intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Explore the full online exhibition, and plan your visit to Picturing Mary, on view at NMWA through April 12.

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.