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Melissa R. Katz and Robert A. Orsi, eds. Divine Mirrors: The Madonna Unveiled.

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. xxi + 298 pp. illus, index. $29.95. ISBN: 0-19-514558-5.

This lavishly-illustrated volume examines the complex relationship between the sacred image and the secular identity of the Virgin Mary in art. Bringing together an amazing collection of paintings, sculpture, rare books, and works on paper for an exhibition held at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, it features works of art from the thirteenth through the twentieth century and includes works by Pintoricchio, Mantegna, and Chagall, among other lesser-known masters. An investigation of the iconography of Mary from chaste and humble mother to powerful queen of heaven, the volume includes not only Western art, but non-Western as well. It is divided into four parts. The first ("The Essays") comprises two introductory essays by the editors, while part 2 ("Other Voices") consists of four shorter essays by other scholars of religion, philosophy, classics, music, and art history, who focus more specifically on topics like "Representations of Mary in Seventeenth-Century Italian Song." Part 3 ("The Catalogue") features fifty works of art with extensive essays on each and is followed by a checklist (pt. 4) of works of art on the Marian theme in the permanent collection of the Davis Museum.

Robert Orsi's essay, "The Many Names of the Mother of God," opens the volume with a consideration of why images of Mary offer contemporary Americans a powerful visual experience. As a professor of American religious history, Orsi draws on his own expertise as he examines twentieth-century American religious practice which has a unique confluence of immigrant traditions. Moreover, he suggests that, more than just a painting or a sculpture, these images of Mary go beyond the artistic to become the embodiment of the Virgin herself. Orsi's discussion of Mary in America highlights such diverse images as the "dashboard Madonna" and the "Apparition of the Virgin" on the side of an office building in Clearwater, Florida, and notes, as well, their impact on American religious thought. Moreover, he ties such imagery to more traditional ones such as the "Weeping Madonna" of Siracusa, Sicily--a fascinating and provocative essay, indeed.

Moving from the realm of religion to that of history, Melissa Katz's essay ("Regarding Mary: Women's Lives Reflected in the Virgin's Image") explores, through twenty centuries, the elements of Marian iconography most relevant to the study of the history of art and its intersection with world history, culture, and religion. Like Orsi's, her essay is directed to modern American audiences. This lengthy essay provides a method for comprehending the religious origins of our common artistic legacy. Katz discusses a broad range of issues which include the origin of Mary in the gospels and Christian tradition, parallels between Mary in the Qur'an and Hebrew Bible, the imaging of Mary in the early church, religious and devotional uses for works of art, as well as the variety of portrayals of Mary in art and literature, whether it be of the Annunciation, the Nativity, or a purely devotional images throughout the ages and across Europe and the Americas. This elegantly written, informative essay has much to offer both the expert and the novice. Of particular note is the breadth of material and the cross-cultural interpretations of Marian literature. The bibliography that follows provides the inquisitive with further sources for study.

The four shorter essays (pt. 2) of about two or three pages focus on a specific idea and, therefore, respond to issues raised by the works of art themselves. For example, Mary Lefkowitz, Professor of Classics, takes two pages to draw parallels between Mary and ancient goddesses like Juno or Demeter, while Ifeanyi Anthony Menkiti, Professor of Philosophy, from Nigeria, looks at how Mary is envisioned in Africa. These four essays provide the reader with other ways of "reading" Mary and continue the broader theme of cross-cultural interpretations that underlie the entire volume.

The stunning catalogue of fifty images concludes the volume and is enhanced by extensive supporting visual material as well. Solicited from various experts in the field, the entries for each work of art are written in a clear, scholarly, yet readable style, each with pertinent bibliography for further study. What makes this catalogue truly remarkable is the range of imagery through time and across continents. The 1290s Umbrian altarpiece depicting Christ Mounting the Cross and the Funeral of St. Clare (cat. 1), the 1798 Mexican Ex-voto commissioned by Jose Maria Ramirez (cat. 36) and Otto Muller's 1927 Gypsy Madonna (cat. 46) are only a few examples to be found here. This collection of works of art presents for us a clear picture of how Mary affected society in the past and still does today--a timeless vision no matter where we live or who we are. It is one of the most beautifully-illustrated and articulated volumes of its kind and as such is an invaluable educational and research tool for all interested in the topic.


University of Alabama, Birmingham
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Author:McIver, Katherine A.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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