Newark Museum features Portugal's vision of Mary Art: Works on display range from demure Gothic sculptures to Baroque paintings packed with fevered angels and cotton-candy clouds.

January 08, 1998|By Holland Cotter | Holland Cotter,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEWARK, N.J. - Charismatic religious images have long been treasured throughout Roman Catholic Europe. Among them, images of the Virgin are revered, and nowhere with more intensity than in Portugal.

There one finds her figure everywhere, gently smiling, svelte or plump, enthroned in urban cathedrals and pampered in household shrines. She was once a major player in the rule of this maritime nation, crowned as its queen, protector of its colonial outposts in Africa, Asia and South America.

Even in a secular age, her cult survives, and her much-reported appearances at the Portuguese village of Fatima early in this century have secured her an international following. That devotion is the subject of "Crowning Glory: Images of the Virgin in the Arts of Portugal," a show at the Newark Museum, which brings together nearly 80 Portuguese images of the Virgin in a wide range of media and dating from the 14th to 20th centuries.

From demure Gothic sculptures to Baroque paintings packed with fevered angels and cotton-candy clouds, the work is fascinating. Yet this isn't a masterpiece display in the usual sense. It's as much about ideas as about objects: about how an image can be politically persuasive, how it can shape social ideals, how it can pass from one culture to another, sometimes changing form but always retaining essential meanings.

Stylistically speaking, most of the art seen in "Crowning Glory" had origins outside Portugal. In the case of a lovely 15th-century limestone Virgin and Child, for example, the mother's swaying stance and her facial expression are pure French Gothic, transported south with barely an inflection.

A Flemish touch

A little panel by the Portuguese artist Frei Carlos (active from 1517 to 1540) of the Virgin suckling the infant Jesus also has northern roots, though different ones. The pretty woman with her brick-red hair, the apple-pie order of the composition are all hallmarks of 15th-century Flemish painting.

The result is by no means mindless imitation, though; it fits the role that Marian art in Portugal was calculated to serve. The intimate physical byplay between the plump, grasping baby and the young mother offering her breast is meant to humanize divine beings, to make them accessible as objects of affection to a wide audience of devotees, which included a large contingent of women.

This kind of emotional intimacy finds particularly fervent expression in the paintings of the 17th-century Baroque artist Josefa de Obidos, where the divine and the everyday blend. In her depiction of the Holy Family, a moony young St. Joseph, a squirming child and a sloe-eyed beauty of a Mary are surrounded a battery of otherworldly special effects: floods of light, swags of drapery and a cluster of exhausted-looking seraphim bobbing about in the sky.

The result is an advertisement for family values in excelsis, with parental love conveyed as a kind of enraptured state. Yet the scarlet canopy hovering over the Virgin's head suggests another level of meaning. She is intended to be seen not only as devoted mother but as sovereign, a role she assumed in 1645 when the king, Dom Joao IV, crowned a statue of the Virgin as queen of Portugal.

Non-Western idioms

The icon was later treated with imperial deference; ladies of the court provided it with a spectacular wardrobe, including jewel-encrusted gowns of gold lame. But besides being ruler at home, the Virgin was official patron of Portugal's overseas operations, and evidence of her form translated into non-Western idioms is one of the most interesting aspects of the Newark show.

In an ivory statuette carved in China, for instance, the Virgin wears the lotus-petal crown and breeze-blown sash of a Buddhist deity. In a silver statue of the Virgin of the Rosary from India, where Portuguese explorers were in the market for "Christians and spices," she has the mesmerizing gaze of a Hindu goddess.

Her painted figure, rice-powder white in an altarpiece from Japan, is flanked by two panels of leafing branches inlaid, Momoyama-style, in gold, silver and mother-of-pearl.

A black Madonna from Brazil peers out from under a tentlike cloak of midnight-blue velvet. And from the Portuguese colony of Angola in Africa comes a near-abstract, spiral-shaped wooden statue in which Virgin and Child merge in a single form.

Such objects are, by their very nature, evangelizing instruments, meant to construe the colonial presence as a sign of divine election. But they also function on a personal level, as models of how to live a life, and it is this dynamic one sees at work in images of the Virgin throughout the show.

'Crowning Glory'

"Crowning Glory," which was organized by the art historians Jerrilynn D. Dodds and Edward J. Sullivan and is on view through Feb. 8, takes a more orthodox, grass-roots view of Mary's continuing allure, tracing it to Newark itself, which is home to the largest Portuguese population in the United States.

Pub Date: 1/08/98

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