Mary kneels before the High Priest, her eyes cast downward at the bells that encircle his blue-gray garment. Every other bell is shaped like a tiny pomegranate.
This rare work of art is currently in D.C., on loan from Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera. The painting, Vittore Carpaccio’s “Marriage of the Virgin” (1502-1505), is one of more than 60 images included in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, a landmark exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts that is bringing many works to the United States for the first time. The collection features Baroque and Renaissance art by the likes of Botticelli, Dürer, Michelangelo, Pontormo, Gentileschi and Sirani, to name a few.
Monsignor Timothy Verdon, director of Florence, Italy’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, curated the exhibit. The scholar says the Carpaccio painting, which depicts the betrothal of Mary and Saint Joseph inside the Temple in Jerusalem, brings Mary’s story back into its Hebraic context in a remarkable way.
“Up to this point, it was taken for granted that Mary was the mother of Jesus, that she was a figure of the church and therefore there was absolutely no need to situate her in her original context, as a Jewish girl in the first century,” he says.
Details within the painting are also rare for the period, such as the seven-branched menorah that Verdon says suggests Carpaccio researched the topic beforehand. “In Venice, that most likely would have meant talking to someone in the Jewish community,” he says.
But even if Carpaccio did his homework, he didn’t do a perfect job of it. Ori Soltes , Georgetown University professor of theology and art history, says, “The whole thing is by definition a kind of imaginative contrivance.”
One glaring error, if Carpaccio was aiming for accuracy, is the indoor setting. “The way the Temple functioned, nobody went into the Temple except the priesthood,” he says. “So in fact, Joe and Jane Judean would never have gotten further than the courtyard.”
Another swing and a miss can be spotted on the High Priest’s chest in the form of a bejeweled breastplate.
“It needs to have 12 distinct semi-precious stones, each one representing a different tribe by tradition,” Soltes says. In this case, Carpaccio painted five rows of four stones, all of which are small and an identical pearly white.
There’s also the menorah, which sits high above Joseph’s head. “It would be a dominant object in the middle of the floor, not a relatively small, delicate object up on a shelf,” Soltes says.
Visitors need not bother attempting to read the two wall inscriptions, which are designed to look like Hebrew passages. Soltes says there are more misses than hits. “There are plenty of viable letters, but very little that I can discern that would be actual words,” he says.
However, Verdon says that was typical in Italian art at that time. “It’s much more frequent to find lettering that looks more or less Hebrew and then you find it’s just gibberish,” he says. “But it was a way of situating the subject of the painting for an Italian public that wouldn’t have understood Hebrew, but at least they would have recognized that kind of letter corresponded to Hebraic lettering.”
He wanted the exhibit to include another famous depiction of Mary’s life, pre-motherhood: Carpaccio’s “Presentation of Mary in the Temple,” which also shows her in a Jewish context.
Together, the pair would have represented one-third of a series by the Italian painter. In the end, Verdon fought to procure the one.
The exhibit will be on view through April 12.
Lauren Landau hosts Art Beat on WAMU-FM.