Photograph courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts, City of Detroit Purchase

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Gerard David, The Annunciation, ca. 1490; Oil on oak panel, 13 11/16 × 9 3/16 × 1 in.;inv. 27.201

Photograph courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts, City of Detroit Purchase

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 art history professor at Wesleyan University, a contributor to the show's catalog, and the author of Divine Mirrors: The Virgin Mary in the Visual Arts, explains Mary's enduring relevance to everyone, everywhere.

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Master of the Orleans Triptych, Nativity (Natività), ca. 1500; Enamel on copper, 7 5/8 × 6 7/8 in.; inv. RFO445a

Let's talk about "visitor ambivalence" toward religious art. You suggest that viewers gravitate to more easily digestible art like landscapes, where "they won't be assaulted with the goods and chattels of a religion they do not understand or don't adhere to." To the casual visitor, all Marys look the same?

Absolutely. Not only do they look the same [to them]. They all look like Christmas cards.

Why see the show?

It's the big picture. This is the one subject in art that takes us through 16 centuries. There's no other image of a woman that is going to take us through that sweep of time. Who is this woman who kept being held up as the ideal in every age? We can see artists changing, we can see art shifting, we see styles shifting, yet we keep coming back to this woman, who walks the fine line between humanity, divinity, reality, fiction, and ideal.

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Maison Samson, Deposition from the Cross and Mourners (Deposizione della Croce, i Dolenti), late 19th century; Grisaille enamel on copper framed in gilded wood, 33 1/4 × 25 1/4 in.;inv. RF853

Can we connect with her even if we're not Christian?

Mary is the connector. She's a ubiquitous Christian symbol, a Jewish woman and mother, and an important woman in Islam. She's in the Koran as one of the four holy women in Islam. And she's important to feminists. At the end of the 20th century, we reinterpreted her. The submissive, passive female suddenly became a hero.

One thinks of the young women of the rock group Pussy Riot, barging into a Moscow cathedral in 2012 and calling on Mary to "put Putin away." As British author Marina Warner wrote, "Punk irony claims Mary for its champion."

You see yourself and your concerns reflected, and that's what Mary has always done, that Jesus could not. She's more accessible, less threatening, always on people's side. Social conservatives, punk rockers, New Agers, and East L.A. street gangs—they all believe Mary stands for them, approves of them, and works well as their own badge of allegiance.

You curated a show on Mary in 2001 that included a controversial photograph of a naked death row convict in the prison shower with a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his arm that illustrated that point.

It's a Danny Lyon photograph from his death row series. I invited some priests to a private showing of the exhibit; one of the older priests saw it and said: "That's disrespectful."

I said, "Well, when your whole society has decided you are worthless, and you might as well just be killed, who else are you going to turn to?"

He was quiet for a while and looked at it more closely and said, "That's really beautiful."

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Albrecht Dürer, The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, 1510; Woodcut, 11 7/16 × 8 1/8 in.; 1943.3.3630

Is there a difference between how men see her and how women see her?

Men will remember their mothers, girlfriends, and grandmothers. I doubt they look at the Virgin Mary as a woman would, and think about their own child and their relationship with their child.

As centuries pass, how does Mary reflect each era?

Each era shapes what they want to see in an ideal woman. Standards of physical beauty vary. Is she fat or thin? Fair or dark? Silent or smiling? The images are mostly going to be shaped by men; even if a woman paints it, there's going to be a patron, and the patron is male. If it's for the church, there are largely men controlling that aspect. It tells us something about what each era wanted a woman to be. I think it's more of a conversation in each particular period, whether she'll be regal and distant or warm and loving. In terms of painting with a broad brush, we see her become more and more humanized. In the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries she's in a regal phase. In the 15th through 18th centuries, her maternal phase.  In the 19th century we look to her to be the Madonna of the oppressed, the poor and outcast.

Is there an image in the show that especially resonates with you?

There are four women artists in the show. One of them is Sofonisba Anguissola. She was a court painter in Madrid and also the art teacher to the wife of Philip II of Spain. The painting by her, done in 1556, is a self-portrait of her at the easel, and the painting on the easel happens to be a Madonna and Child. The self-portrait makes an additional statement. It says: "Look what I do!" The painting is from a small town in Poland, and I never thought I'd actually see it.

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Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556; Oil on canvas, 26 × 22 3/8 in.; inv. 916MT

What message do you hope viewers come away with?

The idea that the art of the past belongs to them. In America, a lot of people think art has to have personal resonance. I want to say, "No, this woman belongs to all of us. This is as much open to you whether you believe or not."

This interview has been edited and condensed.