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'Visualizing the Virgin' shows Mary in the Middle Ages

<em>The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin</em>, from Prayer Book of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, about 1525-1530, Simon Bening. Tempera colors, gold paint, and gold leaf on parchment.
Getty Museum
The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin, from Prayer Book of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, about 1525-1530, Simon Bening. Tempera colors, gold paint, and gold leaf on parchment.

For religious Christians, Christmas is all about Jesus Christ. But his mother Mary was busy, too, giving birth. Over the centuries, Mary became one of the most popular figures of Christendom. Yet she appears in only a handful of pages in the Gospels. Visualizing the Virgin Mary — an exhibition of illuminated manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles — shows how she was portrayed by artists in the Middle Ages, before Renaissance artists decided she had golden curls, perfect skin and blue eyes.

Mary doesn't look that cozy and welcoming in the early manuscripts. The exhibit, curated by Maeve O'Donnell-Morales, shows her as thin and dour, a devoted mother.

Yet much of Mary's popularity rests on her approachable personality, says Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty Center.

"In the early Middle Ages, Jesus was a little bit of a scary figure," she says, explaining that talk about damnation and hellfire was a little distressing for ordinary worshippers. "So they latched onto the Virgin Mary as someone they thought could really empathize with them. They had someone who was kind of on their side."

Mary was warm, inclusive, understanding. Devout Catholics told her their problems, and she told them to her holy Son.

For centuries there's been debate about Mary. Was she born without original sin? Was Christ her only child? Was she really a virgin? What about after Jesus was born?

In the Gospel of James, a midwife doubted the Virgin was still a virgin. That gynecological observation didn't go well for the midwife. Her hands shriveled up. The midwife went to see Mary, and said: I don't doubt you anymore. You're totally a virgin. The Virgin asked an angel to bring back the doubting midwife's hands. And so it came to pass.

Thousands of years later, the stories continue. Some contemporary artists are changing assumptions about what the Virgin represents.

Harmonia Rosales,<em> The Virgin,</em> 2018. Oil on linen, 24 x 24 in.
/ Harmonia Rosales
Harmonia Rosales
Harmonia Rosales, The Virgin, 2018. Oil on linen, 24 x 24 in.

"All to the good," says Morrison. "They're making us double-think it. They're saying 'OK, she's not the figure you thought you saw.'"

Today's artists see the Virgin as a feminist, a West African deity, an inspiration for tattoos.

Art — like Mary — is eternal.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.