Art Exhibit in Washington Explores the Madonna as Woman, Mother, and Idea

Portraits of the Virgin Mary are on show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts until April 2015.

She's the most recognizable woman in the world. Her image spans a wide range of centuries and styles, from reverential portraits by old masters like Michelangelo to cheap plaster statues to the controversial collage by Chris Ofili of a black Madonna studded with elephant dung that caused an uproar when exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999.

But who is the Virgin Mary, and what do we see when we gaze at her portrait? On December 5, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., opens "Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea"—an exhibit of 70 artworks, from the 14th through the 19th centuries, lent by the Vatican Museums, the Uffizi Gallery, and the Louvre, among others.

Melissa R. Katz, an

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