Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," part of the "Picturing Mary" exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," part of the "Picturing Mary" exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. (Alinari / Art Resource, NY, Handout / Baltimore Sun)

A stunning new exhibit on the Virgin Mary at a Washington museum includes an etching by Rembrandt so intentionally hazy it seemingly captures the precise moment in which the aged Madonna passes from life to death.

A 16th-century painting by Caravaggio hangs arrestingly at eye level, allowing visitors to stand close enough to pick out every feather on the black-winged angel in "Rest on the Flight to Egypt."

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And one of the rare female artists of the era, Sofonisba Anguissola, gazes out at viewers with a cool self-confidence in her 1556 painting, "Self-Portrait at the Easel" — in which the artist is seen as she paints an image of the Virgin and Child — boldly proclaiming her right to depict subjects previously considered the exclusive domain of men.

The new exhibit that recently opened at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is an embarrassment of riches, with 64 paintings, statues and textiles by such masters as Michelangelo, Durer, Botticelli and Titian. Some have never before been shown in the United States.

Yet the artworks that are dominating the conversation about "Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea" are the ones that aren't being displayed in the gallery — that is, any work created more recently than the late 1800s.

The resulting kerfuffle underscores a dilemma facing museum administrators: It's impossible to mount a religiously themed exhibit in America in 2014 without becoming enmeshed in politics — no matter how strenuously organizers seek to avoid that pitfall.

"Museums are terrified of tackling any show having to do with religion," says Melissa Katz, the former museum curator who wrote an essay for the "Picturing Mary" exhibition catalog.

"They fear that if you open up that conversation, people are going to come with fixed ideas. Protests and picketers generate press, but they close down the discussion. You get two sides that already have their own point of view, and then nobody looks at the art."

The dust-up began with a review by a prominent national art critic that rebuked museum officials and guest curator Timothy Verdon for excluding potentially controversial modern works.

Philip Kennicott also noted in the Dec. 4 edition of The Washington Post that the show makes barely a nod to the troubling uses to which the Virgin's image occasionally has been put throughout history, whether as a call to arms or as a means of suppressing female independence. Indeed, the sole reference to events that could remotely be construed as negative can be found only in the $45 exhibition catalog.

Instead, Kennicott concluded, the museum wanted to mount a crowd-pleasing blockbuster show unmarred by dissension. He added that the decision to exclude modern works "calls into question the intellectual seriousness of the museum itself."

Museum officials say they intentionally chose to focus in depth on the depiction of Mary over a few centuries when her image underwent a crucial change, rather than mounting a thinner show that covered a longer period of time.

"Attempting a comprehensive survey of Marian imagery would have been impossible, given the multitude of depictions of Mary and the innumerable ways of approaching her as a subject," says Kathryn Wat, the museum's chief curator.

She added that the medium-size institution she helms lacks the vast gallery space of, say, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. What her museum could do, Wat said, was to explore the transition from the perception of the Virgin as a regal, queenly figure to her portrayal as a fully human woman, a bereaved mother mourning her murdered child.

"From the very beginning," Wat says, "we knew we wanted to focus on this particular period of history."

Curators who include a potentially controversial artwork in a show risk engendering a backlash that could jeopardize their institution's future. They risk allowing one artwork out of dozens to hijack an entire show. But curators who deliberately eschew controversy risk being accused of cowardice.

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As Katz points out, a 2001 exhibit in Santa Fe, N.M., that showed the Madonna wearing a bathing suit made from white, yellow and pink roses shut down the show prematurely. In 2005, cartoons that ran in Danish and Norwegian newspapers that depicted Muhammad as a terrorist sparked economic boycotts and riots worldwide. As recently as 2010, "A Fire in My Belly," a short silent film by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, was pulled from the National Portrait Gallery. Opponents — including some members of Congress — complained that the video, which showed a crucifix covered in ants, amounted to "hate speech" against Catholics, and suggested that funding for the Smithsonian Institution be reduced.

"I think Washington is still smarting from the culture wars," says Tey Marianna Nunn, director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center Art Museum in Albuquerque, N.M.

She was referring to the period in the 1980s and 1990s when religious leaders and right-wing politicians attacked the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities for supporting programs perceived as promoting anti-Christian values.

"The ground beneath museums is shifting," Nunn says, "and there are a lot of different stakeholders. Self-censorship shouldn't happen, but it does."

In 1955, Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. ordered that "In a Room," a painting by local artist Glenn F. Walker, be removed from the Peale Museum on the grounds that it was "obscene" and "morally objectionable." The painting showed a nude man and woman lying on a bed.

And in 2001, the Baltimore Museum of Art voluntarily took down the painting "Terrorist" by the artist Christopher Wool on the day after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, but restored it four days later.

"We concluded that our decision had been precipitous and that we had violated our own very strong principles," says Jay Fisher, the BMA's deputy director of curatorial affairs. "Artworks can be provocative, and the reactions to them can be productive by encouraging communication and understanding."

At least, that's the goal.

In his review, Kennicott asked why the "Picturing Mary" show doesn't include "perhaps the most famous image of Mary painted in the last quarter-century" — Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary" in which the Madonna is depicted in a mixed-media collage that includes elephant dung.

An answer to Kennicott's question wasn't long in coming.

His review had barely hit print before the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights ran a response on its website under the headline, "Art Critic Wants Virgin Mary Defiled." Other conservative commentators followed suit.

It's not difficult to imagine the firestorm that would have poured down had the National Museum of Women in the Arts either acted on Kennicott's suggestion or included another emotionally charged artwork in the show.

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"It would have been like waving a red flag in front of a bull," says Katz, a visiting professor at Wesleyan University.

notes there are ample opportunities to view modern art. But "Picturing Mary" provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience certain paintings and sculptures that rarely leave Europe. The exhibit was three years in the making and is being shown only in Washington.

In addition, some pieces on view were lent by the Vatican, by individual churches and by private collectors for whom the paintings and statues aren't just works of art, but an expression of faith. Katz says it's not unusual for potential benefactors to inquire about the context in which their works will be shown before agreeing to ship them overseas.

As she put it: "Organizations like the Vatican would not have been lending to an exhibition that contained Ofili's ['Holy Virgin Mary']."

Nunn understands better than most why curators can be reluctant to venture into the cross hairs.

She was vilified in 2001 after she decided to exhibit Alma Lopez' floral-bedecked, digital print of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Santa Fe's Museum of International Folk Art in 2001.

It took 10 years for Nunn to achieve enough emotional distance to be able to write about the controversy. Thirteen years later, she still scans the crowd for protesters when delivering a public talk.

Still, given the pressure that museums face to demonstrate their relevance to a contemporary audience, Nunn thinks the decision not to include modern images in "Picturing Mary" was an opportunity lost.

"In the community I work with, painting images of the Virgin is a well-established tradition for Latina and Chicana artists," she says. "It's been going on now for 40 to 50 years. Even male artists are starting to do it."

Besides, it appears that at least initially, museum administrators did consider addressing modern images of Mary. After she spoke over the summer at a seminar in Santa Fe, Nunn says, she was approached informally about traveling to Washington to participate in the educational programming for "Picturing Mary."

She learned later that exhibition organizers had decided to take a different approach.

"This is the National Museum of Women in the Arts," Nunn says. "So why can't they show some contemporary images of the Virgin Mary?"

It seems that the result of the current political climate is to put curators into the perhaps impossible position of trying to anticipate how future museum visitors will react to the artwork before them.

As Fisher notes: "Art is ambiguous. It's hard to know whether an image that strikes one person as sacred will offend someone else."

Instead, administrators find themselves seeking a tenuous and perhaps imaginary middle ground.

Museum officials encourage audience members to have passionate feelings about their works of art — but not too passionate. They urge visitors to express strong opinions about the paintings they find on their walls — within bounds. They want their art to inspire people to take action — as long as that action doesn't bring down the institutions in which the works are housed.

"This issue is so emotional and so complicated," Nunn says. "I have to believe that the Virgin is on both sides of this debate."

If you go

"Picturing Mary" runs through April 12 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, Washington. Admission: $10; $8 seniors and students; free for age 18 and younger. Call 202-783-5000 or go to nmwa.org.

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