When we regard a painting, statue or carving of Jesus or his mother, Mary, what are we really seeing? A depiction of how that person actually looked? An idealized or stylized image? An icon of deep spiritual reality?A combination of these? How do we go about trying to find answers — both theological and aesthetic — to these questions?
A traveling exhibit organized by the Gallery at the New York-based American Bible Society digs deep to explore these topics. All 114 works in the show, "Icons or Portraits? Images of Jesus and Mary from the Collection of Michael Hall," belong to a New York dealer and collector. Many have never been publicly displayed. In addition to paintings, the exhibit includes works in silver, ebony, marble, ceramic and bronze. They date from the 12th through the 20th centuries.
Categories include Madonna and Child, Passion Narratives and The Body of Christ. Each work provides a different way of exploring the questions of depiction. Together they go a long way toward explaining how and why such images have changed and in what ways they have remained similar.
The traveling exhibit was shown first at the Bible society's gallery. The display schedule is: the Mobile [Ala.] Museum of Art, through June 8; the Evansville [Ind.] Museum of Art, History and Science, July 28-Oct. 15; and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 8, 2003-Jan.18, 2004.
Ena Giurescu Heller, the society's gallery director, edited an excellent exhibit catalog, which if you can't attend the show, you might still consider purchasing. Order at (800) 32-BIBLE; request by item No. 12708 or title: "Icons or Portraits?" The cost is $45, plus shipping — reasonable for this beautiful coffee table-sized hardback.
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