'Visualizing the Virgin' shows Mary in the Middle Ages An exhibition of illuminated manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum explores how Jesus' mother was portrayed before Renaissance artists painted her with golden curls, perfect skin and blue eyes.

'Visualizing the Virgin' shows Mary in the Middle Ages

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A MART├ŹNEZ, HOST:

For many Christians, the focus at this time of year is on Jesus Christ. But it's also a time to remember his mother. Over the centuries, Mary became one of the most popular figures of Christendom. Yet she appears on just a few pages of the Bible. "Visualizing The Virgin Mary" is an exhibition of illuminated manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It shows how she was portrayed by artists in the Middle Ages. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has more on why Mary became so popular.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: She was approachable.

ELIZABETH MORRISON: They had someone who was kind of on their side.

STAMBERG: Elizabeth Morrison, Getty head of manuscripts, says all the talk about damnation and hell was throwing ordinary worshippers.

MORRISON: In the early Middle Ages, Jesus was a little bit of a scary figure. And so they latched on to the Virgin Mary as someone who they thought could really empathize with them.

STAMBERG: She was warm, inclusive, understanding. They told her their problems, and she told the problems to her Holy Son. Jesus was more likely to listen to Mom.

MORRISON: It's just like kids playing off parents against each other today, right?

STAMBERG: Mary doesn't look that cozy and welcoming in the Getty's early manuscripts. The exhibit, curated by Maeve O'Donnell-Morales, shows her a devoted mother, thin and dour. It wasn't until the Renaissance that artists gave her golden curls, flawless skin and beautiful blue eyes. For centuries, there's been debate about her. Born without original sin? Christ her only child? Was she really a virgin technically after Jesus was born? A midwife in apocryphal writings doubted the virgin was still a virgin.

MORRISON: And you know what happened?

STAMBERG: What?

MORRISON: Her hands shriveled up. And then this is the best part of the story. She says, I don't doubt you any longer. You're totally a virgin. And the virgin asks an angel to bring her hands back.

STAMBERG: And it came to pass. Mary's son also inspires legends. Early Christians were curious about his childhood. Infancy gospels describe him as a naughty little boy. He wanders off, and his parents are afraid he's gotten lost. It turns out OK. The apocryphal stories continue, and none of them would exist without Mary, the mother. Today's artists see the virgin as a feminist, a West African deity, an inspiration for tattoos. All to the good, says the Getty's Beth Morrison.

MORRISON: They're making you double think it. They're saying, OK, she's not the figure you think you saw.

STAMBERG: They're changing our assumptions about what the virgin represents. Art, like Mary, is eternal.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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