The Catholic University of America

March 25, 2015

Conference Explores Marian Themes


Miri Rubin presents her keynote address on the Virgin Mary.

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How did the Blessed Virgin Mary become one of the most powerful and complex religious figures in the world despite sparing mention of her in the Gospels? Acclaimed medieval historian Miri Rubin explored that question during Catholic University’s Graduate Student Conference Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea.

In her address titled The Virgin Mary: Emotion and Legacy in Medieval Europe and Beyond, Rubin cited poetry, scripture, and art to recount the emergence of Mary as an influential and beloved force in religion and culture from early Christianity through the 15th century.

“As scholars, we aim to understand historical processes, change, creativity, and to trace the intriguing interaction between ideas and practices,” said Rubin. “Some of the most beloved traditions surrounding Mary were not in the Scripture but were the creation of communities and institutions. The study of honoring Mary and picturing her in history is rich and meaningful; and is worthy of our utmost attention.”

Rubin, professor of medieval and early modern history at the University of London and the author of Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary, provided the keynote address. The two-day conference featured presentations of research papers that explore the influence of Mary from perspectives that draw on art history, history, music, literature, theater, and theology.

More than 140 students and scholars turned out for the conference that opened March 20 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA). The second day of programming continued on the campus of The Catholic University of America. The conference was CUA’s premier event in its partnership with NMWA on the landmark exhibit Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea. The exhibit features more than 60 paintings, sculptures, and textiles by some of the best-known Renaissance and Baroque artists. The exhibit is on display at NMWA until April 12.

In collaboration with the Archdiocese of Washington, Catholic University has provided program support to the exhibit that draws on the scholarship of University faculty from several disciplines. In addition to the conference, CUA’s auxiliary programs have included a lecture series, courses, an online exhibit curated by art history students, and an online pilgrimage project.

Graduate student Vanessa Corcoran presents her research paper at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  

In welcoming attendees to the first day of the conference, Deborah Gaston, director of education and digital engagement at NMWA, said, “We’ve been presenting these programs in partnership with The Catholic University of America. They’ve been profoundly successful and well attended and it’s been a pleasure to work with the University.”

Gaston also introduced CUA President John Garvey, who provided his own reflections on the exhibit. “Every time I go through I find myself standing in front of a different work,” said Garvey. One of his favorites is Madonna and Child with Mary’s Mother St. Anne by Orsolo Maddalena Caccia, which is being exhibited in the United Sates for the first time.

“Maybe I am drawn to it because I became a grandfather not too long ago and it reminds me of the experience of being a grandparent. Mary and Anne are sitting side by side and Jesus is sitting across their laps. Anne is giving him something as grandparents tend to do. Mary is watching her mother’s exchange with her son as any parent would do. And St. Anne for her part seems to be enjoying her prerogative as a grandmother to spoil her grandson,” said Garvey.

Garvey said the extraordinary variety and volume of creative work inspired by and dedicated to Mary is especially extraordinary because the accounts of Mary in the Scriptures are surprisingly brief. “What accounts for the appeal of this woman over so many centuries? In a way, that is the question this conference is convened to answer. And there is no short answer, which is why we have graduate students,” said Garvey referring to the research papers that would be presented by graduate students during the conference.

Session I, Picturing Mary in Sacred and Literary Texts, featured three CUA students. Jonathan M. Reck presented “The Qur’anic Virgin Mother.” Casey Knott, one of only two undergraduate students on the conference program, presented “Theotokos Paschon?: The Virgin as Tragic Heroine in the Christos Paschon.” Vanessa Corcoran presented “Dramatizing Domestic Life: Mary and Joseph’s Marital Disputes in the Corpus Christi Cycles.”

Corcoran’s paper came from her doctoral dissertation titled The Voice of Mary: Late Medieval Representation of Marian Communication. Corcoran is a teaching fellow and Ph.D. candidate in CUA’s Department of History, and the graduate coordinator for the University’s Honoring Mary project.

“The three students were really impressive in terms of the quality of the papers and the way in which they handled the Q&A session,” said Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, professor in Catholic studies and women and gender studies at Georgetown University, who served as the moderator for the first session.

More than 140 scholars and students turned out for the graduate student conference to explore the influence of the Blessed Mother.  

“I’m so pleased with the turnout for the conference and the attention and engagement of the participants,” added Apostolos-Cappandona, who is currently teaching an undergraduate course titled Mary in the Catholic Imagination. Students in the course have studied the exhibition and its catalog and are using the NMWA and CUA websites as course materials along with Rubin’s book. “Many of my students are here tonight. What a great opportunity for them to hear from and meet and question the author of their course text,” said the professor, who received her master’s degree from CUA in religion and culture.

Undergraduate students in the CUA honors seminar, Mary as Woman, Mother, Idea, were also in attendance. Rubin’s lecture was “extremely expressive of the faith basis behind the way we are looking at the exhibit,” said Timothy Farina, a freshman architecture student who is taking the honors seminar.

“It was our intention to use our partnership with the museum and the Picturing Mary exhibit as a one-of-a-kind learning opportunity for our students,” said Claudia Bornholdt, acting dean of arts and sciences and associate professor of German. “This has been an amazing opportunity for students to blend academic content with world-class art. And this conference is just one of those special opportunities. We feel really proud of that.”

The second day of the conference featured students representing universities that included, in addition to CUA, the University of Rome, University of Maryland, Boston University, Case Western Reserve University, and Dominican University of California. The day started with a presentation by CUA undergraduate art history major Katelyn Grabski, who presented her junior thesis, “The Holy Family at Table: Jacques Callot’s Chef d’Oeuvre Exceptionnel.”

“I loved the mix of emerging scholars and established scholars,” said Gaston of the NMWA. “The partnership with Catholic University allowed for such rich programming. It’s really gratifying when you have a partnership that pulls together the strengths of both organizations.”

Up next for CUA’s Marian-themed programming, the Department of Drama will present The Annunciation, a contemporary dramatization of the pageant from the Wakefield Corpus Christi Cycle, under the direction of Paata Tsikurishvili, artistic director of Synetic Theatre. With an original score, poetic language, and powerful physical expression, this stylized production translates this ancient story for a modern audience. The plays will be presented April 14 and 15 at 7 p.m. in the Callan Theatre at CUA’s Hartke Theatre. Admission is free.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts is located at 1250 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. Students, faculty, and staff are admitted free to the exhibit with a valid CUA ID.




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