Painting the Divine: Images of Mary in the New World, New Mexico History Museum, 505-476-5200; through March 29, 2015
Painting the Divine: Images of Mary in the New World features more than 40 paintings and a few sculptures from 17th- and 18th-century Mexico and Peru as well as works from New Mexico. Curated by Josef Díaz, the exhibition conveys how Spanish colonial society interacted with Mary’s image and how religion factored into migration to the New World. The exhibition gallery, painted the same sumptuous saturated blue as Mary’s mantle, culminates in a small room of modern depictions of Mary by such artists as Ray Abeyta, Ramón José López, and Marion Martínez.
There is a distinctive hallowed feeling to the space, as if you can breathe a little more deeply after leaving the hubbub of the Plaza behind — not entirely unlike the sensation of wandering into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to escape a blazing July afternoon. The works on display in the museum are detailed, ornate, even mystical. But context is everything. If you’re Catholic, you’ll no doubt respond differently to these images and their symbolism than someone raised with no religion at all, and a religious-art scholar is likely to glean a different story from the work than museumgoers interested only in the aesthetic experience of looking at art.
Paul and David Mutschlecner, a father and son from Los Alamos viewing the exhibition on a Saturday afternoon, both commented on the everyday look of Mary in many of the paintings. Paul compared her to someone you’d meet on the street and wondered if the artists used local models.
“She’s not like the Italian Madonna — not so beatific. This presents more doorways into the Divine,” said David, who identified as a Catholic. “She’s like someone Juan Diego would know,” he added, referencing the story of the Virgin Mary appearing, in 1531, on the outskirts of Mexico City to a peasant named Juan Diego — a vision that became known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. “It fits into the simplicity of Mary. She would be someone who would be working at the five-and-dime, just like any of us.”
Questions will pop up for viewers unfamiliar with Catholic imagery. For instance, why does Mary often stand on a sliver of moon? Some paintings by unidentified 18th-century Mexican artists, such as Our Lady of the Rosary With Souls in Purgatory and Our Lady of the Apocalypse, seem to offer clues. The conflict between good and evil is ever-present, with goodness always the path toward redemption.
Mariam Cohen, who teaches courses in religious art at Arizona State University, was touring the exhibition with her husband, Barry Schnur, and her aunt Donna Cunningham, from Albuquerque. “Mary is the feminine Divine in a patriarchal religion,” said Cohen, who converted to Judaism 30 years ago for Schnur, who, in turn, said his faith and practice have deepened over the years due to his wife’s conversion. “As Marion theology has developed, she gets closer to divinity. God and Jesus are so far above us, but we know about a mother who suffers. She is relatable; she intercedes; she has gone through human experiences.” Cohen explained that Mary stands on the moon to signify that she is the Queen of Heaven.
Jason Tapia is the security supervisor for the museum. He grew up in Pecos, going to church at El Macho (St. Anthony’s Catholic Church). Our Lady of the Angels, painted by Juan Correa (1646-1716) around 1700, hung there for many years. “This painting is a tradition in my family. I remember seeing it since I was like 8 years old,” he said. He compared the museum gallery to a church. “The beauty of it brings you to peace within. You can meditate, do a little praying. I think everyone should see it.”
In the contemporary room, Marion Martínez’s Queen of Heaven (2010) renders the Virgin from computer circuit boards, CDs, and other modern materials. Close-by is Ramón José López’s Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (1994), which is painted on buffalo hide. The works highlight the way artists have always used what is at hand to create and show devotion. “For Martínez, creating the Virgin out of remnants of technology is no less pious than sculpting her from wood or painting her on canvas,” Tey Marianna Nunn writes in an essay in the exhibition catalog. Nunn, visual arts director at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, curated the 2001 Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art. The show became controversial due to the inclusion of Alma López’s Our Lady, which depicts the Virgin of Guadalupe in a floral bikini.
On his way out, David Mutschlecner stopped to contemplate Alfredo Arreguin’s Nuestra Señora de la Selva (1989). Mary and her child are in a jungle, surrounded by animals. The surface of the painting looks almost like a tapestry. “It’s like the pattern of creation,” Mutschlecner said. “What a wonderful way to end a show.”