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The sacred image in a secular world

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There’s something particularly noticeable about images of the Holy Family in the 21st Annual Art of Devotion exhibition of spiritual art of the Americas at the Peyton Wright Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico – a warmth that one associates with one’s own family life.

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This down-to-earth air is not unlike that seen in Italy’s Renaissance Marys. Granted the European monastics came to the Americas to convert it with Europe’s devotional images as visual aids and influenced artists of the Americas, it’s not easy to imitate warmth. While Spanish Colonial art is about heaven, it’s also about the hearth.

And because Americas’ devotional art was not hung in churches, but kept in private homes artists were likely moved to paint the Holy Mothers as if they were pictures in a family photo album. No stiff, flat, unfeeling medieval Madonnas, no enthroned figures set against a background of gold, holding their infants like sports trophies, these Spanish Colonial artists told the story of divine devotion as if Mary were their next-door neighbor.

One wonders if the artists of the Americas saw "The Holy Family with A Donor" by Gaudenzio Ferrari, who pitched Mary's head pitched forward to fix her eyes on the Infant at her feet, and cupped her arms in a cradling gesture to signal that the infant is hers. Her watchfulness is the picture of an anxious mother; although her mouth, which is in repose, gives her a less dreading, more adoring air. And the infant, looking up at his mother with hands outstretched, like all babies who want to be held, holds you in the scene. All of this sharpens the impression that you're looking at a picture of a real woman. She interacts with her baby. She feels, and you do, too.

Or did the Spanish Colonial artists see "The Virgin Child with St. Benignus and St. Placidus" by Domenico Puligo, in which the infant, again like any baby, squirms on his mother's lap? In turn, the Madonna, a typical mother, holds one of his wriggling legs with a fond hand.

Renaissance painters knew what they were doing when they brought Mary to life and so did the artists of the Americas.


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