Exploring New Campus Art

Madonna ChildMidway through Inauguration week, a discussion and tour brought attention to some of the College’s latest acquisitions. Molly Gower, interim vice president for Mission, joined Tiffany Bidler, associate professor of art history, to host Representing Holiness: An Exploration of Marian Art.

Enhancing the scope of religious art and icons at Saint Mary’s has been a passion project for Gower, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Theology.

“I came in with a deep appreciation for the relationship between art and theological imagination,” Gower said. “At its core, this project is about Saint Mary’s telling ourselves and others who we are, who we welcome, and what we value. I had heard students, faculty, and staff, especially persons of color, describe their pain at not seeing more diverse representations of holy persons around campus.”

Close to 40 new pieces have been installed around campus, including several majestic statues made of iron, paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries, vibrant contemporary lithographs and posters, and canvas works. In nearly every building, one or more new pieces of art can be found.

Much of the art presents a cultural representation of Mary. At the event, art historian Bidler took guests on a comparative journey, showing the parallels of six of the new Marian pieces to other well-known works of art. Audience members were invited to share their reflections on the parallels before later taking a walking tour to see the art for themselves.

Five of the new pieces on campus were the direct result of an alumna who understood the College’s vision of itself as a place of belonging. Gower said, “Mary Burke is well known to our campus. As the former chair of our Board of Trustees, and an alumna with an extraordinary connection to our students and faculty, she made sure our new collection held some of the brightest examples of religious art.”

Mary StatueMary Burke ’85 and Susan Glockner Gallagher ’80 both sit on the board of trustees at Mercy Hospital in Chicago, which until recently was operated by the Sisters of Mercy. Together, they arranged the permanent loan from Mercy to Saint Mary’s of five remarkable works of art. Other pieces came from collectors and friends of the College, including Carolyn Woo, former dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame and retired CEO of Catholic Relief Services.

The pieces on loan from Woo all represent the mother of Christ through the eyes of Chinese Christian culture.

Woo describes one in particular. “Most precious is the Chinese statue of Mary with Jesus (pictured right). This was produced even though the Communist government prohibited religious images. So this appropriates an image from Chinese folklore in which a dutiful mother/spouse/daughter in a fishing village holds a lantern on her head to guide the fisherfolk to shore. It is laden with symbolism.”

Because all forms of religious activity were banned in China between 1966 and 1976, Marian devotion was often disguised. Woo doesn’t know who created this particular statue, nor does she know its year of origin, but it was given to her by “a much persecuted Chinese bishop and (is) a treasure to me.” By loaning it to Saint Mary’s, she provides an opportunity for the campus community to see some of the ways in which Mary is depicted throughout the world.

Click here to view all the pieces on the tour.


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