Because May is Mary’s month, I thought I’d share some photos I took of various artworks of the Virgin that were on display during my last visit to the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. Dumbarton Oaks is a historic estate, fifty-four acres, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, the former residence and gardens of Robert and Mildred Bliss. In 1940 the Blisses bequeathed the estate, and their extensive collections of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art, to Harvard University, who runs it as a museum, research institute, and library. In addition to housing a stellar permanent collection, the museum also hosts special exhibitions throughout the year, including by contemporary artists. (When I was there I saw the wonderful Outside/IN by Martha Jackson Jarvis.)
The six Marian artworks featured below include paintings, sculptures, and a tapestry, and each originated in a different geographic region: present-day Turkey, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, and Spain. All but the first are from the House Collection, on display in the beautifully designed Renaissance-style Music Room.
Stone carving is an uncommon medium for Byzantine icons. While sculpture in the round was typically avoided by the church in the East, at least for devotional use, relief carving, with its closeness to two-dimensionality, was more acceptable, though still much rarer than painted wooden panels.
In this carved icon Mary raises her hands in prayer on behalf of humanity, a type known as the Virgin Hagiosoritissa (Gk. “Intercessor”). Made before the development of the iconostasis, it was probably originally placed inside a church on the left pillar of the bema, or sanctuary, while an image of John the Baptist occupied the right pillar, with Christ at the top center, forming a group known as the Deesis (“Supplication”). These two individuals are traditionally shown as primary intercessors, flanking an enthroned Christ like courtiers, because they were the first to recognize Jesus’s saving role: Mary in her “yes” to Gabriel, John in his in utero jump for joy.
The Greek inscription at the top of the icon, ΜΡ ΘΥ, is shorthand for “Mother of God.”
Bernardo Daddi was the preeminent Florentine painter after Giotto, who had pioneered a new naturalism and may have been Daddi’s teacher. Daddi operated a large and busy workshop, specializing in small-scale paintings and altarpieces commissioned by the well-to-do for their private devotions. While in this panel he uses the traditional Byzantine gold ground, representing the radiance of heaven, he moves toward the Renaissance with individualized facial expressions and depth in space. I love the tenderness of Mary who cuddles her son’s foot as he looks up at her admiringly, climbing over her lap and clutching at her collar.
“This panel was originally the central unit of a triptych, the wings of which are now missing,” writes James N. Carder. “The Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child sits in the center on a high-backed throne. To the left stand Saint Peter, grasping two keys, and Saint Dominic, who wears a Dominican habit and holds a lily. To the right stand Saint James the Great, holding a staff from which hangs a small red purse, and Saint Paul, holding a knife. Behind each group of saints are two angels, and in the gable is a roundel with the bust of Christ making a blessing gesture.”
This similarly tender Madonna and Child image was made two centuries later by the German Late Gothic artist Tilman Riemenschneider, who ran the largest sculpture workshop in Würzburg, producing an enormous number of religious images for churches. Jesus reaches his hand up to cradle his mother’s chin, his shirt swept back in a breeze, and she holds him with great fondness while also confronting the viewer with a contemplative air. She stands on a crescent moon, probably meant to associate her with the Woman of the Apocalypse described in Revelation 12, who gives birth to a male ruler whom the dragon seeks to devour.
Riemenschneider was “highly regarded in Europe for his technical virtuosity in wood and stone and for his sensitive blending of religious subject matter with a deeply felt appreciation for humanity.” He was one of the first sculptors to abandon polychromy (the application of color to sculpture) on selected works, emphasizing the simple beauty of the sculpted material, which in his case was usually lindenwood (aka limewood), alabaster, or sandstone. A wealthy, respected, landowning member of Würzburg society, Riemenschneider served on the municipal council. His high status and artistic career came to an abrupt halt, however, during the German Peasants’ War of 1525, in which he refused to obey an order to fight the revolting peasants and was imprisoned as a result.
From the French Late Gothic, the Music Room has this beautiful little broken Pietà. A Pietà (Ital. “pity, compassion”) is a representation of the dead Christ on the lap of his mourning mother, but here the figure of Christ is no longer intact. At first I assumed this was Mary in prayer or contemplation, but upon looking up the object on the printed key and finding it to be a Passion image, I can now see that the expression she bears is an elegiac one.
Many Christian images throughout history are contextualized to the time and place in which they were made, and this one is no exception. “The Virgin is clothed in a manner contemporary to the portraiture of fifteenth-century noblewomen, with a simple gown tightly fitted above the waist,” writes Kristen Gonzalez. “A mantle is drawn up over her head, underneath which a veil and barbeile partially obscure her head and lower neck. . . . The Virgin’s gown and mantle appear to have been painted blue and edged with gilding,” as the polychrome traces suggest.
“Small-scale tapestries with devotional subject matter were produced during the early modern period and were prized for this purpose throughout Europe, particularly among the elite circle of monarchs, princes, dukes, and the highest ecclesiastic echelons,” writes Elizabeth Cleland. “Part of the appeal of the scale of these devotional tapestries must have been their portability. They could easily be rolled up or folded and transported with other court paraphernalia from one location to another, thereby accompanying their often itinerant royal owners.”
Furthermore, unlike the monumental tapestries that were often part of a cycle and that were more decorative in nature, these smaller ones were intended to function individually, as single works, and in more intimate ways, for personal prayer and reflection. Dumbarton Oaks’ Christ and the Virgin, three feet square, may have hung in a private oratory (prayer room).
James N. Carder describes the image: “Side-by-side are seen the bust-length figures of Christ as Savior (Salvator Mundi), holding a cruciform orb and making a blessing gesture, and the Virgin Mary crowned as Queen of Heaven and with her hands together in prayer before an open book on the ledge. The lower field of the foreground is profusely ornamented with floral (millefleurs) motifs, and above the arches are a row of Gothic ornaments and a cloisonné-like geometric band that are reminiscent of the tops of French enamel reliquaries.”
Lastly, a painting by one of my favorite artists, the Greek-born Spanish Renaissance painter known as El Greco. The Visitation is a common subject in art that refers to the meeting of the pregnant Virgin Mary (shown at the right by El Greco) and her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. El Greco’s Visitation was intended for the Chapel of Isabel de Oballe inside the Church of San Vicente in Toledo, but it’s uncertain whether it was ever installed. Originally the canvas had a circular outline, but at some unknown date it was cut down on all sides.
El Greco’s initial art training was in Byzantine icon painting on the island of what today is Crete, where he was born and which was then under Venetian rule. At age twenty-six he moved to Venice and learned the Italian Mannerist style, and ten years later he left for Spain, where he spent the rest of his life. Characterized by a spiritual fervor and a sort of proto-expressionism, his works were new and unusual and much sought after. The Visitation demonstrates his preference for boldly attenuated figures caught in strong highlighting, abstractions that “emphasize the ethereal and timeless nature of the biblical world,” says Carder.