A new exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts offers historical representations of the Virgin Mary. Here, Post art critic Philip Kennicott shares what he found most powerful—and what he felt the exhibition lacked. (Jhaan Elker and Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

Picturing Mary” is the most ambitious exhibition mounted by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in years, and given its subject — images of the Virgin Mary — it is likely to be one of its most popular as well. It opens in the middle of the Christmas season, when the subject of Mary is particularly resonant, and it includes more than 60 works, some of them by the most celebrated artists of the Renaissance and baroque eras, including Michelangelo, Botticelli, Caravaggio and Dürer. If this show, which opens Friday, doesn’t fill the museum’s galleries with throngs of visitors, nothing will.

The subject is vast, and doing it justice in one exhibition is impossible. One might organize such a show based on the archetypal narrative moments in Mary’s life — the Annunciation, the Pieta, the Assumption — that have inspired artists for centuries. Indeed, one might organize an exhibition around any single one of those archetypes, and still the amount of material would be overwhelmingly huge.

Guest curator Monsignor Timothy Verdon, who is director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, has chosen to focus the show into chapters exploring different aspects of Mary’s identity and her relationship to Christianity. One section focuses on Mary as mother and woman, another on her presentiments of grief and the loss of her child, another on “Mary as Idea,” and yet another is devoted to the use and appropriation of Mary in religious practice. The exhibition also devotes substantial attention to images of Mary made by female artists, and so there are works by well-known figures, such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Sofonisba Anguissola, and lesser names, including several large works by the mid-17th-century painter Orsola Maddalena Caccia never before shown in the United States.

Inevitably, it is a show defined by highlights rather than an overarching thesis, although Verdon has been careful to underscore one of the essential and most salient changes­ in Marian iconography: Her emergence as a fully human figure, beginning about the end of the 14th century. Before that, artists drew primarily on long-standing early Christian and Byzantine traditions that represented Mary as regal and formal, sealed up in her glory and perfection. Mary was also adopted by emerging European royal courts as an icon of queenly power, and a convenient way to conflate images of divine and human authority. A good deal of the old Byzantine formality lingers in a work by Nardo di Cione (a panel showing Mary reading, from a larger Annunciation pairing) and a striking two-tiered painting on gold ground by Francescuccio Ghissi, in which the dead Christ looks down upon an adoration of the infant Jesus, with Mary in a sumptuous blue robe. A small wood statue by an unknown 14th-century German artist captures a particularly elegant and aristocratic Mary, holding Jesus, although everything about her rather blank face and the perfect folds of her robe suggests a triumph of conventional and stylized beauty over the particulars of her personality or individual psychology.

But by the middle of the 15th century, Mary emerged as a far more emotionally complex figure, a mother playfully teasing her baby, a haunted woman seemingly unable to look away from the suffering she knows will befall her child. One delight of the exhibition is the pairing of a painting by Cosmè Tura, borrowed from the National Gallery of Art, with a terra-cotta figure attributed to Tura, borrowed from the Grimaldi Fava Collection. Both depict an adolescent girl with slender, long hands, delicately touching her fingers together in a gesture that isn’t quite hands joined in prayer but rather a spontaneous expression of delight as she looks at the baby sleeping between her legs. It’s rare to see a painting and terra-cotta of the same subject made at roughly the same time; if both are indeed by the same artist, he clearly understood the power of the image he had crafted.

Sandro Botticelli’s “Madonna and Child” from the “Picturing Mary” exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; inv. 443)

A curious tension prevails throughout the exhibition, between weaker paintings that are nonetheless curious and interesting, and stunning works that arrest the visitor and overwhelm everything around them. In the first category are six paintings by Caccia, the daughter of an established painter who worked in the Piedmont region. Caccia became a nun yet was allowed the extraordinary freedom of working in her father’s house after he established a mini-convent there for Caccia and her sisters, who were also nuns. Caccia manages a few lifelike figures, especially in a warmly lit Nativity painted in the early 1620s, but most of her work feels overstuffed and more philosophically compelling than artistically animate. The face of St. Luke in a painting of the evangelist in his studio may be an image of her recently deceased father; even more striking is the profusion of references to Luke’s supposed role as “painter of the Virgin,” a popular legend that inspired artists throughout the Renaissance. Arranged along a diagonal line from upper left to lower right, Caccia has referenced Luke’s relation to words and text through the depiction of books, a sculpture of the virgin still under construction by the saint, and a painting of the Madonna and Child newly finished and sitting on an easel. This recalls not only the robust debate during the period about the different merits and challenges of painting vs. sculpture, but also philosophical discourse about images, reality and the power of the written word.

This large and rather inert painting is helped by having a niche of its own, where it can be studied (better lighting would help) without unfortunate comparison to stronger material. Verdon has also deftly placed one of the most powerful works — Caravaggio’s “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” — in a context that doesn’t intimidate its neighbors. This relatively early work was one of the artist’s first substantial forays into religious imagery, but it is as deliciously homoerotic as any of his profane works. The painting is divided down the center by the back of a youthful male angel, who plays what appears to be a small viol while an elderly Joseph holds a book of music. To one side of the boy’s almost naked backside, Mary sleeps with Jesus in her arms. To the other side, Joseph stares longingly into the angel’s eyes. Thus the painting contrasts erotic tension with perfect repose, leaving Mary and Jesus daringly marginal to the real drama of the scene.

Verdon has placed the Caravaggio in between two lesser works, one by the studio of Titian, the other by Simone Peterzano. The connection is academic but effective: Peterzano was Caravaggio’s first teacher and was himself a student of Titian.

The highlights are too many to enumerate — the Botticelli is a perfect beauty, a small Mantegna is haunting and an Annuciation by Lorenzo di Credi surprisingly powerful — and almost all of the second-tier works interesting enough to merit inclusion. But there are two serious problems with the exhibition: It arbitrarily ends in the 19th century and includes no 20th-century or contemporary images of Mary; and while the catalogue essays deal with the darker side of Marian imagery, including her invocation in war and powerful role as a protector during religious strife, the exhibition neglects these aspects of her history.

In an interview, Verdon said that he would have been happy to carry the story through to the present, but the museum’s leadership declined on two grounds: First, it felt the show’s end­point should reflect the 19th-century-style architecture of the museum’s home; and second, it didn’t want to delve into potentially controversial aspects of Marian imagery. A spokeswoman for the museum responded by saying that the plan from the beginning was to focus only on the emergence of Mary as a human figure from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. “These time periods have been the focus of the project since its inception, prior to our partnership with Timothy,” she said in an e-mail.

The idea that the art should reflect the museum’s architecture can’t be seriously credited, given how often the museum programs modern and contemporary art. But it’s sad to hear the institution acknowledge that it had no interest in carrying the subject up to the current moment. How can an organization that champions women and women’s art leave off the table the powerful feminist critique of Mary that has animated thinking about this imagery for the past half century? How can a museum that wants to be taken seriously as a site for contemporary art ignore works such as Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” the locus of a major art scandal in Brooklyn in 1999 and perhaps the most famous image of Mary painted in the last quarter century?

Easy. It wanted a feel-good show. But Mary isn’t entirely a feel-good icon. She was routinely invoked in wars against Islamic states and anti-Semitic campaigns. One of the ugliest blood libels in literature, Chaucer’s ferociously anti-Semitic Prioress’s Tale, begins with an invocation to Mary. Another fascinating side channel of her iconography (illustrated in the catalogue) depicts her as a warrior queen, armed and triumphant in battle (one 18th-century statue from Sicily shows her on horseback, trampling a dark-skinned Moor). Many people who recoil at the Catholic Church’s treatment of women and gay people will find little to love in the way Mary’s purity and virginity have been used to indict sexuality in general, especially unregulated sex. Powerful feminist thinkers, including Simone de Beauvoir, have argued that Mary is one of the church’s most powerful weapons in a war against women’s dignity and empowerment. Many have argued that the celebration of her virginity is indissolubly linked to patriarchy.

But none of that is discussed or even broached in this exhibition, which includes works borrowed from the Vatican and feels, in the end, as if designed to be fundamentally Catholic in its presentation of Catholic iconography. Its arbitrary and conspicuous omissions do the larger church little service, for it aligns the show, and the museum, with the dogmatic tradition of Catholicism rather than its rich, exuberant and open intellectual tradition.

But more fundamentally, it calls into question the intellectual seriousness of the museum itself. If museums are not a safe ground for full and open discussion, then these discussions are unlikely to happen anywhere in public life. One recurring image of Mary shows her holding open her capacious cloak, including all within its protection. This would be a good image for the museum leadership to ponder when it considers future exhibitions.

Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts from Friday through April 12. For more information, visit www.nmwa.org.