A group of Benedictine nuns from Massachusetts had just arrived in Washington, D.C. to march in an annual anti-abortion rally, when they saw a sign outside the National Museum of Women in the Arts announcing an ongoing exhibit.
“Meet Mary,” it said.
The nuns belong to the order known as the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, whose members consecrate their lives to the woman they call “The Blessed Mother” of Jesus. The rally wasn’t until later, and the exhibit was showcasing more than 60 depictions of her, including some by Michelangelo, Carvaggio and Botticelli.
“We have to go there!” one of the sisters exclaimed. Another suggested God had led them there.
The aim of the exhibit, which runs through April, is to show how the Virgin Mary was humanized by Baroque and Renaissance artists. One painting shows the Madonna tickling the baby Jesus, and in another she is breastfeeding him.
But the gallery was criticized for neglecting less adoring depictions by modern artists, such as Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which was made with elephant dung and shows her surrounded by pornographic cutouts.
Sensitivity over how religious figures are depicted cuts across faiths. In Islam, it was recently highlighted by the terrorist murder of 12 people at a French magazine that had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as religious figures of other faiths.
Indeed, there has been no shortage of outrage over the portrayal of Christian symbols. In 2011, on Palm Sunday, French Catholic fundamentalists armed with hammers attacked “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a crucifix in a glass of urine that triggered much controversy in the U.S. in the 1980s. And when Ofili’s work was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani threatened to cancel funding for the museum.
The director of the Washington women’s art museum, Susan Fisher Sterling, says religion and art can be a volatile combination.
“I believe that whether it is the Virgin Mary or other religious figures, it is an emotional response,” she said. “And when you talk about things that are so deeply ingrained in the human psyche and in the human heart, and that desire to raise to a higher level, I think it is a fraught subject.”
As she studied the masterpieces in the Washington museum’s show, Sister Marie-Bernard said other galleries have been wrong to show provocative renderings of Mary, a woman to whom she has devoted her life.
“I find it horrifying that that would be allowed, in the public stream of art, to be viewed, when artists throughout the centuries have been trying so hard to depict her so beautifully as they have shown us here,” she said.