We live in a city of museums. That provides a range of possibilities for most of us, and no matter what our inclination – be it art or history or technology or even dinosaurs – there is something for us here. And since this is the capital city, what there is, is usually of the very highest quality. So I can always find something to do with my day off even when the weather is such that I would rather spend it indoors.
So when my mom and dad visited for a few days during Christmas, I planned to spend a day in the city, and take advantage of this abundance. They’ve been here many times before, but I found an exhibit at a museum none of us had ever visited, and thought we would give it a go. Boy am I glad we did!
Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea is on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (nmwa.org) through April 12. The museum is open seven days a week, but is NOT part of the Smithsonian – so there is an admission charge. This exhibit brings together a range of art depicting the Holy Mother of God over a span of history. Paintings, sculptures, tapestries and even one window all shed light on who Mary is and how she has been understood and approached over the centuries by different societies and individuals.
The exhibit is not huge – only five rooms – but it is abundant and diverse. The works of art come from some of the finest collections in the world, including the Louvre in Paris and the Uffizi in Florence. The artists are world-class, too: Della Robbia, Caravaggio, Botticelli, and that shy old fellow Anonymous.
But there are also works that are interesting because they are from places you would never think to visit yourself – the diocesan museum of a small town in Italy, for example – as well as some private collections you would never be permitted to view; or because they are by artists you have never heard of. One example of the latter is Orsola Maddalena Caccia, an Ursuline nun who was not only talented but also prolific, to judge by the number of huge canvasses that represent her here. My mom was completely taken with a tiny (ten inch) statue of the Blessed Mother carved with exquisite and expressive detail out of a piece of boxwood about six or seven centuries ago.
All of this art is surrounded by useful information about not only the art and artists, but also the subject herself. That means that to move through the exhibit and read all the explanatory plaques and narrative introductions will lead you through a pretty effective catechism on Mary, her role in the salvation of the world, and her relationship with disciples of her divine son.
Now, all of this will be interesting and informative for you, and some of it may even be news to you. But imagine what it offers to so many museum-goers who are not acquainted with Mary, or even Jesus Christ! The texts provided, which include some of our most basic and beautiful Marian prayers, do a marvelous job of presenting everything that you and I know and love about Mary and our relationship with her. That is hard to come by outside of a strictly Catholic or devotional setting, which could well be off-putting for someone unfamiliar or not already well-disposed toward the faith.
This exhibit, however, is easily approachable and enjoyable for one and all. In that, I suppose, it is most like Mary herself, and most effective in revealing who she is and what her role is, not only in history, but in our lives today. She is approachable and understandable, as well as understanding. Thus she is now, as she has ever been, the first and best ambassador of our Savior. And it is only fitting that she be encountered so easily, so beautifully, not behind the walls of one of our city’s embassies, but through the open doors of one of its museums.Monsignor Smith