Painting with Confidence: Early Female Self-Portraiture

Self-portraits convey more than just appearances—they affirm an artist’s identity. In the 16th and 17th centuries, women artists made portraits of themselves in their studios. Self-portraiture helped legitimize women as artists in a male-dominated profession.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Judith Leyster presented themselves with confidence—they asserted and promoted themselves in eras when society rarely deemed that appropriate for women.

Leyster’s The Concert is currently on view at NMWA, and paintings by Anguissola and Gentileschi recently appeared in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea. By representing themselves in the traditionally male role of the confident artist, these women created places for themselves within the art world, regardless of their sex.

In Anguissola’s Self Portrait at the Easel, the artist identifies herself with the Virgin Mary on her canvas. Both are women of virtue with a reserved demeanor and simple dress. However, Anguissola’s strong gaze meets that of the viewer. She carries herself proudly as she displays her painting-within-a-painting.

Anguissola adheres to society’s expectations of depicting women modestly, yet she boldly shows that she is also an artist with talents for both portraiture and religious scenes.

Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting exemplifies her assured and dynamic painting style, even when applied to self-portraiture. In the Baroque period, allegorical figures (or people embodying abstract concepts) were generally represented as female figures. Capitalizing on this trend, Gentileschi’s painting goes a step further. She depicts herself as a symbolic representation of “painting.” Using her own likeness instead of an idealized figure, Gentileschi tests the conventions of feminine humility. In her painting, Gentileschi faces away from the viewer, absorbed in her work. Because her working canvas is out of view, nothing distracts the viewer from Gentileschi’s image.

Leyster, a successful Dutch artist, exudes self-assurance in her Self-Portrait. This is one of the few 17th-century depictions of a woman smiling. Typically, smiling or laughing in the art of Leyster’s contemporaries indicated mental instability or drunkenness. Leyster turns that stereotype on its head, along with the stereotype of the talented artist as a man. She shares the delight of the fiddler on her canvas while grinning at those who doubted her artistic ability.

These three works illustrate the ways that Western self-portraits incrementally became more confident and less demure. Pioneering women of the 16th and 17th centuries proudly painted themselves as artists, paving the way for a long tradition of female self-portraiture—from Elizabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun in the 18th century to Alice Bailly in the 20th century.

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

Expanding Mary’s narrative: Apocryphal influences in Picturing Mary

For being the mother of Christ, Mary is a surprisingly scarce figure in the Bible. The primary canonical source for information about Mary is the New Testament, yet the basic biographical sketches created by the four Evangelists lack detail about her life before Christ.¹ Despite the scarcity of written accounts documenting Mary’s past, her life story is a prevalent theme throughout both art history and Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea—artists and the public sought more information than could be found in the Bible.

Many artists drew their information from apocryphal texts, ancient sources that were not recognized by the church or included in the Bible, in depicting specific events in Mary’s life. Most likely written sometime during the 2nd century C.E., New Testament Apocrypha contain rare information about both Mary’s life and Christ’s childhood, and provide vivid accounts of the teachings of Christ and his apostles. Apocrypha such as the Infancy Gospels were extremely popular in the following centuries. They were also the dominant source for pictorial depictions of Mary during the late Middle Ages and continued to be widely used as artistic inspiration after the Renaissance.

Vittore Carpaccio, Marriage of the Virgin (Sposalizio della Vergine), also called Miracle of the Flowering Staff (Miracolo della Verga Fiorita), 1502–05; Oil on canvas, 56 3/4 × 60 in.; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Vittore Carpaccio, Marriage of the Virgin (Sposalizio della Vergine), also called Miracle of the Flowering Staff (Miracolo della Verga Fiorita), 1502–05; Oil on canvas, 56 3/4 × 60 in.; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Vittore Carpaccio’s Marriage of the Virgin, also called Miracle of the Flowering Staff (1502–05), illustrates the story of Joseph and Mary’s marriage as written in the apocryphal Protevangelium (or Protogospel) of James. Using vivid naturalism and high levels of detail, Carpaccio portrays the miracle of Joseph’s staff blossoming with flowers upon his betrothal to Mary. The supernatural element of Joseph’s staff blooming reveals the role of God in bringing Mary and Joseph together.

By detailing the holy selection of Joseph as Mary’s husband, the Protevangelium of James provides greater insight into the life of Mary and enhances Joseph’s role in religious writings. Carpaccio’s choice of subject indicates the contemporary popularity of apocryphal work and suggests society’s desire to know more about the life of Mary than the Bible provides.

Albrecht Dürer, The Birth of the Virgin, ca. 1503–04; Woodcut, 11 3/4 × 8 5/16 in.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.3577

Albrecht Dürer, The Birth of the Virgin, ca. 1503–04; Woodcut, 11 3/4 × 8 5/16 in.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.3577

The six Dürer prints (ca. 1502–10) featured in Picturing Mary capture key moments in Mary’s life as detailed in a number apocryphal texts, including the Protevangelium of James and the Pseudo-gospel of Matthew. The Birth of the Virgin (1503–04) combines the reality of a bustling birthing room with the dreamlike image of an angel floating overhead. By dressing the figures in 16th-century fashion, Dürer visualizes the apocryphal phrase “Anna conceived and gave birth to a daughter and, as commanded by the angel, the parents named her Mary,” as occurring in his native Germany.² By doing so, he directly links the narrative of the Virgin to the people of Nuremberg.

In the 21 images in his Marian series, Dürer uses apocryphal inspiration and similar stylistic elements to flesh out Mary’s life story. In doing so, he and countless other artists help viewers better understand and identify with the Virgin.

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

Notes:
1. Zlotnik, Ann. “Mary and Apocryphal Writings,” International Marian Research Institute, http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/maryapocryphal.html.

2. Elliott, J. K. A Synopsis of the Apocryphal Nativity and Infancy Narratives. Leiden: Brill, 2006. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed March 30, 2015).

Last chance! Visit Picturing Mary, on view through April 12 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!

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.

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.

Beyond Iconography: Food in The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Orsola Maddalena Caccia’s lavishly detailed painting The Birth of St. John the Baptist (1635), currently on view in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, features still-life arrangements nestled into the sacred narrative. A hallmark of Caccia’s oeuvre, these small renderings of food and flowers are imbued with symbolic significance. However, Caccia’s still-life embellishments are not only emblematic of the sacred story, but relate to a female viewer’s life experiences.

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, (Nascita di San Giovanni Battista), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, (Nascita di San Giovanni Battista), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

This scene is derived from popular narratives of Mary’s life. The nativities of the Holy Family were often commissioned by and for women, and often depicted true-to-life rituals and objects that would have accompanied a woman as she prepared to give birth. Here, St. Elizabeth is sitting upright in bed after successfully, and safely, delivering her son. The baby, St. John the Baptist, is held near the painting’s center. His eyes meet those of the Virgin Mary, as fluted rays of light from the painting’s top left corner form a delicate halo. Almost every corner of the canvas is filled, advancing the narrative and alluding to Biblical themes.

The piled bunches of grapes foretell Christ’s sacrifice and the sacramental wine of the Eucharist. Other small fruits are depicted as well: pears, for the sweetness of Virtue, and a quince, which had been associated with both immortality and fertility since Antiquity. The eggs held by Elizabeth’s attendants were symbols of birth and resurrection; their pale luster also resembles pearls, one of Mary’s attributes as well as a symbol of purity and virginity.

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, (Nascita di San Giovanni Battista) (details), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, (Nascita di San Giovanni Battista) (details), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

The two attendants and their tray of eggs would also have reminded a female viewer of her own experiences within such a room. Childbirth in the Renaissance was a particularly dangerous experience, often accompanied by complications during and after the birth. The health of mother and child was an overwhelming concern. Renaissance medical texts were very specific about the necessary nutrition that a new mother required immediately after giving birth. Sweetmeats and nuts were brought to new mothers almost immediately after a baby was born. Poultry and eggs had long been especially recommended for women immediately after their labor. Even an exemplary figure such as Elizabeth required this sustenance; by including these staples, Caccia emphasizes the humanity of Elizabeth and John.

Food is one of many theological symbols reminding viewers of the sacred nature of the scene. When shown alongside attributes of Christ and the Virgin, the nativity of St. John the Baptist acts as a precursor for the miraculous birth of Christ. Viewers at the time could also see Caccia’s painted details as a means of connection, meant to foster a bond between this sacred story and their everyday lives.

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

Visit NMWA to see Picturing Mary, on view through April 12, 2015. Click here to learn more!

Picturing (and Printing and Publishing) Mary

The catalogue for Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea explores depictions of the Virgin Mary in art from a unique combination of religious, cross-cultural, and contemporary art-historical perspectives.

CatalogueCoverIn addition to showcasing full-color images of the art on view and many comparative works, the catalogue for Picturing Mary, co-published by NMWA and Scala Arts Publishers, examines Mary’s image as an enthroned queen, a tender young mother, and a pious woman. Thought-provoking texts demonstrate how her personification of womanhood has resonated throughout history.

In the opening essay, exhibition curator Timothy Verdon, director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and canon of the Florence Cathedral, describes a fascinating work, Orsola Maddalena Caccia’s Saint Luke the Evangelist in the Studio: “This painting perfectly suits our theme, for it shows one of the authors of the Christian scriptures, the evangelist Luke, literally picturing—creating images of—Mary and her son. Since Luke dedicates considerable space to Mary in his Gospel, it is fair to say that his “images” were in the first place literary. . . . Among other noteworthy features, this work includes a soulful bull, a traditional symbol of Saint Luke, and, below the table, a dog, a traditional allusion to fidelity.”

Miri Rubin, professor of medieval and early modern history, Queen Mary University of London, wrote about Christian traditions of depicting Mary. She examines changes in these images throughout history, as well as the ways in which communities such as monastic groups interpreted Mary’s image. “Monks and nuns re-created the Virgin Mary as a European mother. They turned the mother of God into a member of their communities, a vibrant, loving figure, pure and human, demanding yet forgiving.”

Catalogue_TVopening-blogEssayist Amy Remensnyder, professor of history at Brown University, focuses on images of Mary used as a “Warrior and Diplomat.” She describes certain works of art showing Mary in warlike settings: “Straddling the boundary between manliness and womanliness, female virgins in many cultures have access to realms normally reserved for men, including warfare and hunting. Virginity, medieval Christian authors declared, armed female saints with the masculine virtues of strength and courage. It is perhaps significant that the Madonna delle Milizie does not hold her son in any of the extant images; this epitome of Mary as warrior rides alone—virginal, not maternal.”

Catalogue_Ag-di-Duccio-LippiWithin her essay, Melissa R. Katz, Luther Gregg Sullivan Fellow in Art History, Wesleyan University, describes the “porous and personal nature of Marian imagery.” She explores a statuary type called the Vierge Ouvrant, or Triptych Virgin, in which the Virgin’s moveable body serves as a set of doors to reveal imagery inside, and the “viewer is invited—indeed required—to touch the body of the Virgin with her hands in order to open and close the doors . . . inviting a true sense of intimacy with the saintly statue.” Katz brings her analysis to the present day: “More surprising than her persistence in the religious imagination is her presence in the contemporary art world. Where other sacred personages have faded to footnotes, the Virgin Mary has found renewed relevance as a feminist icon, spiritual touchstone, and banner of political identity.”

Click here to learn more about the exhibition and programming for Picturing Mary, on view at NMWA through April 12, 2015. Click here to purchase the catalogue!

There’s something about Mary . . .

Tomorrow, December 5, the National Museum of Women in the Arts opens Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea. This new exhibition explores the concept of womanhood represented by the Virgin Mary—who has for centuries been viewed as an ideal figure by Christians—as well as the social and sacred functions her image has served. Visit the museum to encounter this iconic figure through more than 60 Renaissance- and Baroque-era artworks.

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

How did artists represent this figure of “ideal” femininity? How did Mary’s depiction change over time? From a queenly, exalted figure in the medieval era, to a human and nurturing mother in the Renaissance, each image reflects its society and time.

These works, from the Vatican Museums, Uffizi Gallery, and other museum, church, and private collections in Europe and the United States, are presented in six thematic sections. Mary is shown as a daughter, cousin, and wife; the mother of an infant; a bereaved parent; the protagonist in a rich life story developed through the centuries; a link between heaven and earth; and an active participant in the lives of those who revere her.

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

This exhibition examines Mary from a historical perspective, with works by male and female artists. Paintings by Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orsola Maddalena Caccia (an Ursuline nun who ran a bustling painting studio in northern Italy), and Elisabetta Sirani highlight women artists’ images of Mary. Their works are featured alongside treasured paintings, sculptures, and drawings by Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Pontormo, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and others.

From altarpieces to monastic houses, to intimate figures used for personal worship, Picturing Mary illuminates many facets of the familiar Madonna figure.

A different variety of Madonnas appear in NMWA’s first-ever online exhibition, A Global Icon: Mary in Context, which showcases a broader artistic landscape. As Christianity spread to new areas of the world, due to missionaries, colonialism, and many other factors, Mary’s image spread, too, reflecting a profusion of diverse aesthetic traditions.

Visit NMWA before April 12, 2015, start online, or check out the varied talks, workshops, and programs on the calendar for Picturing Mary.