|Andrea Pisano, relief from Giotto’s Bell Tower in Florence, 14th century
One of the things I appreciate most about living in Washington is the quality of its art exhibitions. A National Museum for Women in Arts (NMWA) exhibit,“Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” brings some of the best images from Italy in Washington. This magnificent show dedicated to the mother of Jesus has a Botticelli, two Della Robbias, a Michelangelo and a Caravaggio. It’s almost better to see it in Washington, DC, than in Italy, because so many of the most beautiful images are brought together in one place. However, the exhibition is only going to be there one more week, until April 12.
The exhibition also has a significant number of early Italian sculptures, a stained glass window and even an image made in India. Paintings and sculptures come from several museums in Florence, Rome, Milan and Paris. The National Gallery of Art in Washington has loaned several pieces to the exhibition, which stand up in quality with some of the best in Italy. Furthermore, NMWA added paintings from its own collection.
|Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, c. 1480
The exhibition begins with the late Gothic period/early Renaissance. Above all, it captures one aspect of Mary that is most appreciated, her motherhood. In Andrea Pisano’s beautiful blue and white relief sculpture from the 14th century bell tower of Florence Cathedral (above), Mary is tickling the baby Jesus. Italian artists at this time broke from the medieval and Byzantine artists by bringing Mary down to earth. She is just like any other mother and Jesus is just your typical baby, no longer a miniature adult with an imperial demeanor. They have fun and are very playful. He’s a true Italian bambino.
|Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child (detail)
Fra Filippo Lippi was a priest by accident. Orphaned as a child, he raised in a monastery, and raised to be a priest. It wasn’t what he was meant to do. He fell in love with a nun, Lucretia Butti, and had a son who grew up to be the marvelous painter Filippino Lippi. The Pope gave Lippi a special dispensation to leave the priesthood and get married. Lucretia and Filippino were probably the models for his Madonna and Child.
|Michelangelo, Madonna and Child, from Casa Buonarroti, Florence, c. 1520-25
There’s an Artemisia Gentilleschi painting I had never seen previously. She’s holding out her breast for Jesus, offering to nurse him. She looks down at Jesus very lovingly. He stops to think about it ,rather than jumping right to her breast. Artemisia Gentilleschi is the first female artist to have achieved an international reputation. Her own biography. is very compelling.
This exhibition is significant and scholarly for a number of reasons. It delves into the meaning behind the imagery. It also reveals significant stories in Mary’s life and the lives of the artists who painted her. The NMWA blog has much good information about the symbolism. It also can teach viewers a great deal about the Renaissance and Baroque styles of art, particularly in Italy.
However, I appreciate the exhibition mostly for other reasons. When we look at these Madonnas and we see the maternal love, we know that Mary’s message is that she can be mother to all of us. One doesn’t need to be Christian or even religious to understand that the love between a mother and her child is a universal truth.
The NMWA used images from its own collection to enhance the show, pieces by Elisabetta Sirani and Sofonisba Anguissola. The museum continues to make a significant contributions to the community, to promote women artists from around the world and to cultivate relationships with significant donors. Generous donors and supporters of NMWA underwrote the cost of insuring individual works of as they traveled from Europe. The result of their gifts is that Washington has put on another exhibition of universal importance and appeal.
At the National Gallery, there’s another exhibition about the Italian Renaissance in Washington, Piero di Cosimo. It taps into a completely different aspect of the Renaissance, the rebirth of interest in classical mythology.