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Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013

The Virgin Through Time

Haggerty’s retrospective of Marian art

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On display through May 19, “Images of the Virgin Mary” is well worth a look for all interested in devotional art. Featuring a diverse array of media, styles and time periods, these artworks are grouped according to five major events of Mary’s life: The Annunciation, The Nativity, The Flight into Egypt, The Pietà and The Assumption and Coronation. Subject matter, however, is the only constant. On the same wall as Audrey Flack’s Warholesque Esperanza or Macarena of Miracles (1975), do not be surprised to find Andrea Vanni’s stirring The Mourning Madonna, a work with similar theme that happens to predate Flack’s by nearly 600 years.

One of several woodcuts included by the great German artist Albrecht Dürer, The Flight into Egypt, delivers an immense level of detail at minute scale. In this moving depiction of the Holy Family in crisis are myriad, meticulously rendered animals and plants to draw the viewer’s eye and connect the momentous event to the rest of creation. In the same section we find Paul Berçot’s 1954 oil painting of the same title, which reduces the three central figures to abstract color blocks. Here, although the style is vastly changed, we find a similar poignancy in the atmosphere of dislocation and alienation.

The most familiar image of Mary is surely that revealing her as the mother of the infant Christ, and Salvador Dalí’s 1949 Madonna of Port Lligat certainly offers a provocative interpretation. The figures sit on a throne floating above still waters, each with large rectangular sections neatly removed from their bodies. Within and around these openings float diverse and ancient symbols: lemons for fidelity, a blue ball representing the world, an egg symbolizing new life and, perhaps inevitably, a tiny cross in the hand of the infant. Critics contend that the surreal and deconstructionist nature of this work points to the horror of nuclear fission first introduced to the world at the time of composition.

“Images of the Virgin Mary” is about juxtaposition as well as the incredibly durable threads of continuity found in religious art across time. Although styles and mindsets have certainly changed over the years, the persistence of theme and subject speaks volumes to the enduring power of Marian devotion.