Virgin Most Prudent, Mirror of Justice, Ark of the Covenant, Queen of the Confessors. These are a few of the 50 titles of Mary in the Litany of Loreto, stenciled on a wall in the exhibition “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea.”
One of the most ambitious projects in the 27-year history of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, “Picturing Mary” arranges in six thematic sections more than 60 paintings, sculptures and works in other media. Curated by Monsignor Timothy Verdon, director of Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the show is on view through April 12.
It is largely an Old Masters show, with household names such as Botticelli (the captivating “Madonna of the Book”), Dürer (six etchings), Michelangelo (two drawings, one arriving in late January) and Rembrandt (an etching).
Perhaps the most compelling work by a famous artist is Caravaggio’s “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” of 1594-96, from the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome. A big, beautiful puzzle of a painting, it depicts, on its right half, Mary cradling baby Jesus in an arcadian setting and, on its left half, St. Joseph and a brown ox in a barren clearing. Dividing the canvas nearly from top to bottom is a mostly naked angel, back and wings to the viewer, playing a Marian motet on the violin from music that Joseph holds up, every note clearly shown.
This being the National Museum of Women in the Arts, there are works by four women artists: Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625), Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656), Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596-1676) and Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665).
The museum has exhibited Anguissola’s “Self-Portrait at the Easel” of 1556, from Lancut Castle in Poland, once before, but it is an ideal choice for this show, with the artist gazing out as she finishes a painting of Mary nose-to-nose with a young, standing Jesus, Mary’s fingers tenderly touching his cheek and the back of his blond-haired head.
Six paintings by Caccia, an Ursuline nun from Moncalvo (about 30 miles east of Turin) whose father Guglielmo was a painter, are displayed, three of them nine feet in height. The first the visitor encounters, “St. Luke the Evangelist in the Studio” of c. 1625, is probably the finest and most interesting. Modeled on her father, the Evangelist – said to have been an icon painter – is shown working on a sculpture of the Madonna and Child, a painting of them on an easel nearby. The complex composition also includes putti, books, a high window, an ox (Luke’s symbol), a little dog and roses (the symbol of the Virgin) on the floor.
In the gallery titled Mother of the Crucified is a passage from the Gospel of Luke in which Simeon tells Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The stenciled excerpt is between a polychromed terracotta, “Madonna and Child” of c. 1430 by Luca della Robbia, and a stained-glass window, “Deposition and Entombment” of 1526 by Guillaume de Marcillat. In the two works, a resigned woman stares out or away, not at her son.