“Picturing Mary” in our Lenten and Easter Journeys

Picturing Mary

Orsola Maddalena Caccia, 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

At the heart of Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna of the Book is the sadness that pervades the face of Mary as she looks on the child Jesus in her arms. Her hand rests on the Bible, which has already announced that the Messiah would be the suffering servant of God. The painter intends us to see in her face the realization that Jesus willingly undertook the way of the cross for our redemption. A later artist would paint into the picture the nails in his hands and the crown of thorns hanging from his small arm.

This beautiful and haunting painting is also one of the masterpieces depicted in the extraordinary exhibition Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea at the National Museum of Women in the Arts with its huge banner flying over the city of Washington inviting us to “Meet Mary.” The final three weeks of the art exhibit, which runs through April 12, Divine Mercy Sunday, offer us a special opportunity to reflect on Mary’s part in salvation history and her role in our lives as we continue on our Lenten journey to the Paschal Mystery.

As we approach Holy Week, it is helpful for us to reflect on the Passion, our salvation and the love of Jesus for us that brought him to the cross and us to redemption. The Picturing Mary exhibit, featuring many Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces from museums, churches and private collections never before seen in the United States, offers us a dramatic look at Mary’s central role in the events leading to the glory of the risen Christ which we experience at Easter.

In this exhibition, which was organized with the support of the Archdiocese of Washington and supported in part through the generosity of individuals and foundations in our community, one can see all the aspects of this magnificent woman through the eyes of artistic genius through generations and centuries, but the message is the same: Mary is the mother of Jesus, the mother of God, and she is our mother. This once-in-a-lifetime display of works of art offers a manifestation of how for centuries artists saw something in Mary that touches hearts today.

A bridge between the sacred and the secular, the exhibit shows a unique woman who for centuries has dominated not only culture but also, and more importantly, human hearts. No other woman in human history has such a place in our hearts, our minds and our imagination. Touching even non-Catholics, Mary has led countless people to her Son. It is no wonder then that in churches, hymns, songs and above all in artwork, there has been a universal outpouring of love for the Blessed Virgin. Mary is the model of what our faith should be – she is forever the example of what we mean by faith, true profound faith.

The paintings, drawings and sculptures of Mary in this powerful exhibit show the major events in the Blessed Mother’s life, beginning with her “yes” to become the mother of Jesus and open her heart to God’s plan, which foreshadows Jesus’s own “yes” in accepting his suffering and death on the cross so he would rise in three days, redeeming the world. In these stunning works of art, we see a woman cradling the infant Jesus in her arms at the stable in Bethlehem and praying at the foot of the cross as Jesus’s first and greatest disciple, always reminding us who Jesus is, why he came, and what he did for us.

In this Lent and in the upcoming Easter season, these works of art can likewise remind us who we are and what we are called to do. The Picturing Mary exhibit depicts a real woman who offered her gifts so God could work the miracle, who 20 centuries later remains a role model to us in opening our hearts to God’s call for us and doing what we can to bring Jesus to the world.