Kat Murrell
Mother and Immortal

Haggerty’s “Images of the Virgin Mary”

The Haggerty's upstairs exhibition features depictions of Mary over six centuries, from medieval portraits to modern Dali.

By - Feb 19th, 2013 04:00 am
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Andrea Vanni, The Mourning Madonna, ca. 1375. Image courtesy Haggerty Museum of Art.

The Virgin Mary is a transcendent figure. This can be understood in a number of ways. She looms large in the panoply of saints and holy figures in Christian theology, but can also be described as transcendent in the way her representation in art slips with flexible eloquence from one century into the next.

Yet despite this adaptability, she is usually recognizable by her characteristically demure countenance, and often surrounded by a recurring series of figures, both metaphysical and mortal. Images of the Virgin Mary, on view now at the Haggerty Museum of Art, draws from their permanent collection as well as important loaned works in an informative survey of her appearance in art during the past six centuries.

Depictions of Mary in art largely center on a few key events, all represented in Images of the Virgin Mary:

    • The Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to convey the news she will give birth to Jesus.
    • The Nativity, focusing on the host of figures familiar from Christmas creche scenes – shepherds, angels and sometimes the opulent three Magi.
    • The Flight into Egypt, featuring Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus as refugees fleeing King Herod’s slaughtering of all young male children.
    • The Piety, where Mary holds Jesus’ dead body after the Cruxificion.
    • The Assumption, Mary’s transformation into a heavenly figure, evading earthly death.

Pieter Claeissins I, The Holy Family. Image courtesy Haggerty Museum of Art.

The broad arc of the narratives are identifiable, though the details vary greatly according to time period and artistic style. In this sense, the figure of Mary as an iconic figure, embodying both virginity and motherhood, is simultaneously consistent yet variable.

With paintings, prints, and sculpture created from the 14th century though the 20th, this exhibition is a survey of changing approaches to art condensed around this singular figure, who retains a mostly recognizable iconography – the only exception being the more abstract 20th-century paintings. On the whole, the figure of Mary persists through 600 years as an ideal: demure and pious in her youth as a chosen figure and radiant young mother, but not without a foreboding sorrow for the death of her son.

Pieter Claeissins the Elder represents The Holy Family in a rather modern setting for the 15th century. Joseph works as a carpenter in the background while Mary caresses the tender toes of her young son, her face a study in sombre contemplation as though she is aware of what will happen to her delicate yet robust child. She is shown in multiple guises throughout time: sorrowful as a mourning mother, regal as queen of heaven in fine fabrics and jewels, adored with the glittering opulence of gold, yet accessible as a sympathetic intercessor to the divine.

Salvador Dalí, Madonna of Port Lligat, 1949. Image courtesy Haggerty Museum of Art.

Images of the Virgin Mary is shown in the upper galleries of the Haggerty Museum, accompanied downstairs by exhibitions such as Perimeter: Photographs by Kevin J. Miyazaki. Although the overt subjects of these installations seem quite different, there is an uncanny sense of complement. The character of water as photographed by Miyazaki changes, given the circumstances of time and atmosphere. So too the visualization of Mary alters as well, from the otherworldliness of heaven to atomic age mysteries of the 20th century.

Images of the Virgin Mary continues at the Haggerty Museum of Art (Marquette University Campus, 13th and Clybourn Streets) through May 19, 2013.

Melissa R. Katz will speak on “The Virgin Mary in the Visual Arts” as part of the Marc and Lillian Rojtman Old Masters Lecture Series in Eckstein Hall on Wednesday, March 20, at 6pm, with a reception to follow in the museum.

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