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One of my favorite books is Medieval Popular Culture, by the Russian medieval historian Aron Gurevich. His study looks at the popular texts of the day—penitentials, catechisms, exempla, and so on—to try to understand the worldview, the Weltanschauung, of the largely illiterate classes of the Middle Ages. Since those folks never set out their histories in written form, Gurevich works backward, discovering the audience of medieval popular literature from their contributions to its authorship.
Even though it was published in 1990 and looks back many centuries, Medieval Popular Culture might have been written about the Internet. The book offers a workable theory that could be applied to memes. There’s a parallel in terms of authorship. In medieval times, hagiographies of the lives of saints offered a popular hook for Scripture, like animated GIFs that illustrate an article. In medieval times, the reader (or really, the listener) did not prize a story about a saint’s life for the story’s originality, but instead for its adherence to the story the reader knows by heart (regionally and socially).
Memes work the same way: There are some stories that only a perfect Bridesmaids GIF can tell, some truths that only a certain Jurassic Park GIF explains. The cult of saints came to embody the total universe of popular culture from which the New Testament drew, the same way that reality television and popular cinema and lots of cats make up the narrative history of the Internet.
So if the cult of saints served medieval popular culture as the Real Housewives of Medieval Europe—a cornucopia of allegories that could be consumed immediately, like GIFs—then Mary was the culture’s original Bey. After all, the Mother of God was the very center of the legendarium around which the New Testament was assembled. “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, illustrates the many narratives that the figure of Mary serves, as well as the many narratives that factored into her construction. Needless to say, it’s an ambitious exhibition. To quote Scripture: I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly.
At the heart of the show—which was curated by Monsignor Timothy Verdon, a Marian scholar and director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, with NMWA chief curator Kathryn Wat; and facilitated by former Pope John Paul II Cultural Center director Hugh Dempsey—are depictions of Mary by four women artists. Although works by Dürer, Botticelli, and Caravaggio may prove a bigger draw, artworks by women from the same eras are the better treat. These paintings show Mary as women understood her, which is a rare feminist lens for seeing the core of the Western canon.
Puccio Capanna, a student of Giotto (and a man), is responsible for one of the oldest pieces on display: “Madonna and Child with Annunciation and Female Saints (Regina Virginum)” (ca. 1330), a tempera painting on panel with gold leaf. In this almost Byzantine formulation, Mary is situated at the center of a group of upright women, perhaps to serve as a scolding reminder for a monastic order of nuns (regina virginum meaning “queen of virgins”). Fast-forward nearly 350 years, though, and Elisabetta Sirani’s painting “Virgin and Child” (1663) depicts a scene so sensual that it’s almost vulgar (strictly in a painterly sense). Hers is a Baroque painting that relishes in the material values of texture and shadow, and delights in the chemical bond between mother and child. This is a Mary who is crazy in love.
It would not do to simply arrange these artworks chronologically. (Except, perhaps, in the sense that a show about the Virgin Mary that runs from just before Christmas to just after Easter cannot fail, no matter what the museum does.) So curators Verdon and Wat have arranged the paintings according to the purposes that they serve. “Mother of the Crucified” and “Mary as Idea” are two examples of these template headings; they suffice as a thematic conceit for making sense of one long-running, ever-changing concept. (A little like how Beyoncé’s Dangerously in Love and I Am… Sasha Fierce are two chapters in a singular epic.)
I’m more taken, though, with the granular lessons of several works by the women in this show. Both “Self-Portrait at the Easel” (1556) by Sofonisba Anguissola and “St. Luke the Evangelist in the Studio (San Luca Evangelista nello Studio)” (1625) by Orsola Maddalena Caccia depict an act of depiction. Caccia’s fantastic painting captures St. Luke at work, sculpting a Madonna and Child of his own, his unfinished Gospel text unattended on the lectern behind him. Anguissola’s work is a self-portrait, one in which she offers herself as the creator. An artist’s work is holy, like the work of Mary, that of giving birth to something sacred: probably these painters felt the connection keenly. (Yet any artist’s work is in some sense heretical, isn’t it? An imitation of creation, aping the original act of God.)
The best depiction of the special melancholy of Mary is Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino)” (1609–10). The painting, which the artist made when she was maybe 16 years old, shows the Christ Child as he prepares to feed at Mary’s breast. Narratively, it reflects the strain of Christian thought that Christ’s infancy prefigured his crucifixion. But the painting also mirrors the themes that a prominent Early Baroque painter like Gentileschi, even as young as she was, would want to convey to her audience—ideas to which her audience would be accustomed.
“Picturing Mary” doesn’t try to tell us any single thing about Mary. What the show demonstrates is that, through history ,artists found different things in Mary, different Marys, and that it is through her depiction that Mary is created. The audience has a role in this, just as the New Testament was crafted by its readers, and the Internet was built by its lols. That’s why it’s a shame that more modern Madonnas are not included in this show. (The museum has assembled an ancillary exhibit online of “global representations of Mary,” including Black Madonnas and the Virgin of Guadalupe.) “Picturing Mary” reveals the textual feedback loop at the center of mythic and historical art. And in this exhibit, Mary is, as ever, flawless.
1250 New York Ave. NW. $8-$10. (202) 783-5000. nmwa.org