She is the most painted, but never photographed, mother in the world.
Mary, mother of Jesus, was rarely depicted in the earliest Christian art, but after 431 A.D., when she was given the title Mother of God, she became a fixture in monumental decorations in churches and a favorite subject of artists of all kinds.
Images that show Mary, with or without the infant Jesus, in a devotional light are called Madonnas.
Kansas City has a wealth of interesting Madonnas, thanks to a large collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and to religious art inside area churches.
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The Nelson has more than 50 prints, drawings, paintings and sculptures of the Madonna and Child, ranging from medieval times to about the 18th century, spokeswoman Kathleen Leighton says. More than half of them are on display in the European galleries directly behind the Rozelle Court courtyard restaurant on the first floor.
The works range from large gilded panels to marble sculptures to painted terra cotta. A walk through the galleries reveals the very different ways the Madonna has been portrayed over the centuries, sometimes encircled by a halo and angels and sometimes plunked down in a domestic interior or sitting in the grass.
The Nelson gets a flurry of requests for Madonna images every November. “Smaller newspapers want a beautiful image of the Madonna and Child for the entire front page on Christmas Day,” Leighton says.
A Madonna of one kind or another graces the inside of every Catholic church, says the Rev. Michael Coleman, archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Most churches in the diocese are only open to the public for half an hour or an hour before and after Mass. Hours for Mass vary; visitors can find contact information for individual churches at www.diocese-kcsj.org.
Coleman says Madonnas have evolved throughout their history.
“In the ancient days, they all looked pretty much the same, but as time went on, they began to adapt to the culture and began to look like someone in that culture. So the Mexicans have Madonnas that look Mexican and the Irish have Madonnas that have red hair,” he says.
Here is a sampling of notable Madonnas at the museum and in area churches.