Picturing Mary on her Feast Day

Caccia, "St. Luike the Evangelist in the Studio" (ca. 1625)
Caccia, “St. Luike the Evangelist in the Studio” (ca. 1625)

Today, January 1, 2015, Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God… what a perfect day to consider the National Museum of Women in the Arts’  (NMWA) big hit exhibit, “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea”.

I visited the museum for the first time a few days ago, and while my only goal was to take in the Mary exhibit, I was impressed by the museum as a whole.  The facilities are beautiful, the location ideal and (and this is always important) the gift shop was up to snuff.  The NMWA’s raison d’être is to educate people about the role played by women in the arts.  As the founder of the museum, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay acknowledges in her Forward to the gallery book on the exhibit, Mary is of such importance to the western artistic understanding that “Picturing Mary” was conceived at the same time as the museum itself.  How beautiful then to see both come to fruition this holiday season!

Three reflections… First on the exhibit itself, second what I personally gleaned from the exhibit, third a brief response to the one critique I’ve read about the exhibit:

Vast libraries have been created to house people’s reflections on Mary, and the art inspired by her.  There’s just too many good things to say about Mary and this wonderful exhibit dedicated to her.  Briefly then… The quality of the pieces displayed was superb. I found myself beaming throughout… my only sadness being that eventually most of these exquisite works will have to return to their European homes.  I was also happily surprised to find that the explanations for each piece of art were generally accurate in presenting Mary as she has always been loved by the Church.  Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE should take an opportunity to see this exhibit.

For myself, just having celebrated Christmas and preparing for today’s feast, this exhibit really hit home.  I have an intense relationship with Mary. I’ve studied her in the Gospels, prayed with her in our chapels, visited her great shrines… Despite all this I’m always discovering new deep realities about her and consequently about my own relationship with God.  What did I take away from the NMWA exhibit?  Mary loved Jesus.  It might seem obvious… but look to each work and see the Blessed Mother holding a mystery in her hands.  She loved him, contemplated him, protected him… She drew her very being, her reason for life from him, and then something happened.  At a wedding in Cana they ran out of wine.  Mary directed the stewards to her son, the as yet little-known Jesus.  She pushed him out of the nest… she gave him to the world knowing full well that one day “a sword would pierce her heart,”… and so it did.  Two or three years after that wedding miracle, Mary held in her arms the dead body of the son she once nursed at Bethlehem.  “Picturing Mary” taught me in a new and deeper way than before that the only way to show you treasure someone beyond all price is to share that person with the world, for the sake of others, even if it means you will suffer.  Mary embraced such suffering because it allowed Christ to come to the fullness of his glory, and that joy was worth it for her and for us.  As a human being it’ll be good for me to consider what treasures I have that I need to be more generous about… or question whether I really treasure them.  As a Christian and a priest, I know my greatest treasure is my relationship with Christ (just like Mary)… How am I doing at sharing him with the world?  What would I be willing to sacrifice in order to share him that much more effectively?  How can I more effectively “Picture Mary” and so imitate her.  Visiting this exhibit was a great start.

Finally… Philip Kenicott of the Washington Post and Kriston Capps of City Lab are both fine writers and commentators on art, architecture and all things urban.  I often enjoy reading their articles and tweets.  Both have [separately] reviewed “Picturing Mary,” and I concur with much of what they’ve written.  Their one critique raised by Mr. Kenicott is that exhibit doesn’t consider a modern (19th-21st century) secular feminist critique of traditional depictions of Mary.  Perhaps it wasn’t so much a critique as a reasonable question, “Why doesn’t the exhibit address the secular feminist critique?”  It’s a reasonable question, partially answered: the curators simply weren’t concerned with it.  I suppose if someone else wants to mount an exhibit on secular feminist critiques of Mary they’re welcome to do so… “It’s a free country.”  Given the proliferation of ably supported women’s studies programs in schools, universities, think tanks and other institutions, It’s hard for me to question let alone fault the NMWA for leaving that worthy discussion to others at this time.

Separately from these two reviews, questions about Mary and feminism often lead back to a deeper root question, “What’s with Catholicism and women?”  It’s a question that the Church has addressed with exhaustive energy over the last several decades.  St. John Paul II wrote beautifully about the dignity of women in his letter Mulieres Dignitatem (and many other places)The reflections of two of our greatest intellectuals,   Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar are expressed beautifully in “Mary the Church at the Source,” (Ignatius, 1997).  More broadly speaking, the Church’s universal teaching about her equal esteem for men and women can be found in the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” (Chapter 3) assembled by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana in 2005.  Certainly Pope Francis has spoken beautifully on the subject.  All are great reads, easily available, that might help those left with questions after visiting “Picturing Mary.”  My only personal contribution to the conversation would be point out that among human beings there are only two before whom I would happily prostrate myself… one is the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ… the other his his totally human, totally woman, totally awesome mother, Mary.