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Virgin Mary exhibition is flawed by exclusion of modern works

Virgin Mary exhibition has its delights but glaringly omits modern perspectives

Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Caravaggio. Photos: Parrocchia Sant'Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti, AP

Picturing Mary" is the most ambitious exhibition mounted by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in years, and given its subject - images of the Virgin Mary - it is likely to be one of its most popular as well. It opened in Washington, DC, early this month in the Christmas season, when the subject of Mary is particularly resonant, and it includes more than 60 works, some of them by the most celebrated artists of the Renaissance and baroque eras, including Michelangelo, Botticelli, Caravaggio and Dürer. If this show doesn't fill the museum's galleries with throngs of visitors, nothing will.

The subject is vast, and doing it justice in one exhibition is impossible. One might organise such a show based on the archetypal narrative moments in Mary's life - the Annunciation, the Pieta, the Assumption - that have inspired artists for centuries. Indeed, one might organise an exhibition around any single one of those archetypes, and still the amount of material would be overwhelmingly huge.

Guest curator Monsignor Timothy Verdon, who is director of the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence, has chosen to focus the show into chapters exploring different aspects of Mary's identity and her relationship to Christianity. One section focuses on Mary as mother and woman, another on her presentiments of grief and the loss of her child, another on "Mary as Idea", and another is devoted to the use and appropriation of Mary in religious practice.

Madonna and Child by Sandro Botticelli.

The exhibition also devotes substantial attention to images of Mary made by female artists, so there are works by well-known figures, such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Sofonisba Anguissola, and lesser names, including several large works by mid-17th-century painter Orsola Maddalena Caccia.

Inevitably, "Picturing Mary" is defined by highlights rather than an overarching thesis, although Verdon has been careful to underscore one of the most salient changes in Marian iconography: her emergence as a fully human figure, beginning about the end of the 14th century. Before that, artists drew primarily on long-standing early Christian and Byzantine traditions that represented Mary as regal and formal, sealed up in her glory and perfection. But by the middle of the 15th century, Mary emerged as a far more emotionally complex figure, a mother playfully teasing her baby, a haunted woman seemingly unable to look away from the suffering she knows will befall her child.

A curious tension prevails throughout the exhibition, between weaker paintings that are nonetheless curious, and stunning works that arrest the visitor and overwhelm everything around them. That is partly defused by Verdon's arrangement of the works. He, for instance, has deftly placed one of the most powerful works - Caravaggio's - in a context that doesn't intimidate its neighbours.

The Birth of St John the Baptist by Orsola Maddalena Caccia.

This relatively early work was one of the artist's first substantial forays into religious imagery, but it is as homoerotic as any of his profane works. The painting is divided down the centre by the back of a youthful male angel, who plays what appears to be a small viol while an elderly Joseph holds a book of music. To one side of the boy's almost naked backside, Mary sleeps with Jesus in her arms. To the other side, Joseph stares longingly into the angel's eyes. Thus the painting contrasts erotic tension with perfect repose, leaving Mary and Jesus daringly marginal to the real drama of the scene.

The curator has placed the Caravaggio between two lesser works, one by the studio of Titian, the other by Simone Peterzano. The connection is academic but effective: Peterzano was Caravaggio's first teacher and was himself a student of Titian.

An embroidered chasuble cross featuring a Pieta scene, by an unknown artist.
The highlights are too many to enumerate and almost all of the second-tier works interesting enough to merit inclusion. But there are two problems with the show: it arbitrarily ends in the 19th century and includes no 20th-century or contemporary images of Mary; and while the catalogue essays deal with the darker side of Marian imagery, including her invocation in war and her role as protector during religious strife, the exhibition neglects these aspects of her history.

In an interview, Verdon said he would have been happy to carry the story through to the present, but the museum's leadership declined on two grounds: first, it felt the show's endpoint should reflect the 19th-century-style architecture of the museum; and second, it didn't want to delve into controversial aspects of Marian imagery. A spokeswoman for the museum said the plan from the beginning was to focus only on the emergence of Mary as a human figure from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. The idea that the art should reflect the museum's architecture can't be seriously credited. But it's sad to hear the institution acknowledge that it had no interest in carrying the subject up to the current moment.

How can an organisation that champions women and women's art leave out the feminist critique of Mary that has animated thinking about this imagery for the past half century? How can a museum that wants to be taken seriously as a site for contemporary art ignore works such as Chris Ofili's , the locus of a major art scandal in Brooklyn in 1999.

Easy. It wanted a feel-good show. But Mary isn't entirely a feel-good icon. She was routinely invoked in wars against Islamic states and anti-Semitic campaigns.

Many people who recoil at the Catholic Church's treatment of women and gay people will find little to love in the way Mary's purity and virginity have been used to indict sexuality in general, especially unregulated sex. Powerful feminist thinkers have argued that Mary is one of the church's most powerful weapons in a war against women's dignity and empowerment.

Mary isn’t entirely a feel-good icon. She was routinely invoked in wars against Islamic states and anti-Semitic campaigns

But none of that is even broached in this exhibition, which includes works borrowed from the Vatican and feels as if it's designed to be fundamentally Catholic in its presentation of Catholic iconography.

Its arbitrary and conspicuous omissions do the larger church little service, for it aligns the show, and the museum, with the dogmatic tradition of Catholicism rather than its rich, exuberant and open intellectual tradition.

But more fundamentally, it calls into question the intellectual seriousness of the museum itself. If museums are not a safe ground for full and open discussions, then these discussions are unlikely to happen anywhere in public life.

One recurring image of Mary shows her holding open her capacious cloak, including all within its protection. That's a good image for the museum to ponder when it considers future exhibitions.

"Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea"

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: An incomplete picture