For an abundance of devotional art, the Walters Art Museum just up the road and near the Basilica of the Assumption in downtown Baltimore is the destination to seek out – and perhaps the best in the United States. On a recent visit, more than 60 different images of the Blessed Virgin Mary were on display, ranging from a 6th-century Byzantine sculpture made from an elephant’s tusk to dozens of paintings of the Virgin with the child Jesus. These images range from the solemn to the playful, from the queen to the humble and from the simple to the elaborate, filled with symbolic elements: each offering a different invitation to reverence.
Spanning more than 12 centuries and spanning three continents, Walters’ works are exhibited in settings that evoke – as far as possible – their original placement in churches or private homes. Entering the first room of the Renaissance galleries on the third floor, one sees the “Annunciation” by Bicci di Lorenzo, dating from the beginning of the 15th century. As with many Walters pieces, it is not one of the best-known names, and Bicci was not completely up to date with the innovations in perspective that came into fashion around 1425.
But what is unique about this image is that it has survived in its original setting, with its predella, a series of smaller narrative scenes from the life of Mary running across the bottom. In most museums, these altarpieces were dismembered centuries ago and the small narrative panels, when they survive, are scattered across multiple collections. When we look at this painting, executed in tempera and gold colors on a wooden panel, we can indeed imagine its function evoking the body of Christ behind the altar of a church near Florence at the time of transubstantiation. (Since representing the Incarnation, Christ is physically present in this scene although not yet visible.)
Now the Walters have gone a step further by bringing the great art of centuries past to life with their ‘Activating the Renaissance’ exhibition. Six contemporary artists have contributed original paintings alongside the old ones. A particularly striking one is titled “Tears of the Black Madonna” by Jessica Bastidas, an artist who trained in Maryland and teaches there but who has exhibited in Pennsylvania, New York, France and the United Kingdom, among other places.
“Tears of the Black Madonna” hangs amidst three 15th-century Madonna paintings from the Walters Collection. Bastidas writes that, on a trip to the West Coast last summer, she was “fascinated by how representations of the Virgin had migrated from the sacred spaces of churches to the streets”, including graffiti depicting Our -Lady of Guadalupe, whom she calls an intercessor for all who face discrimination and socio-economic disparities.
In his painting, Bastidas depicts an older brother carrying a younger one in front of a mural of the Virgin Mary and within a frame of salvaged materials.
The way this image reimagines the theme of Mary is found throughout the museum. Here are some examples that illustrate the range:
- An Ethiopian Madonna surrounded by the apostles. The Walters has the premier collection of Ethiopian art in the United States.
- Paintings by famous Renaissance masters Raphael and Bellini.
- An elaborate gold and jeweled bishop’s brooch depicting the Annunciation.
- A medieval wooden carving of the Madonna and Child which opens to reveal scenes from the Passion of Christ.
- A Byzantine icon that bursts like a flower, with the Virgin and Child in the center and other biblical scenes at the corners.
- An embroidered bishop’s miter from Armenia with the Coronation of the Virgin at its centre.
- A Horizontal Nativity by Bernardo Strozzi, ca. 1640, showing the shepherds bursting in to worship the newborn Savior at night.
- The Immaculate Conception: a very large painting, by the Spanish master Murillo, and tiny ones in ivory or wood by Chinese and Filipino artists.
- Mary mourning Jesus at the foot of the cross (several versions), or alone in the image known as Pietà (no, Michelangelo did not invent it).
- A very rare English medieval alabaster carving: one side shows the Annunciation, with God the Father literally breathing out the dove of the Holy Spirit; on the opposite side, Mary is lifted up to heaven with her hands outstretched in the “orans” prayer position.
“Activating the Renaissance” is on view until February 2023 at the Walters Art Museum. Go to thewalters.org.
Hamerman writes from Reston.