Jesus and Mary are among the most represented subjects in the history of western art. From symbolic Early Christian images to modern interpretations, iconic as well as narrative representations of them have served as objects of devotion and aesthetic appreciation. Through the centuries, the image of Jesus changed in ways that reflected religious and socio-political developments, stylistic evolutions, aesthetic and ethnic preferences. Despite this, it has always maintained a certain recognizable quality allowing us to recognize Jesus regardless of context. Whether he is illustrated in a biblical narrative or depicted alone in iconic form, we "know" who Jesus is. Over time artists have created images of Jesus that are instantly identifiable to an audience familiar with the western iconographic tradition, even though the Bible offers no information on how Jesus looked.
With such a dearth of textual information regarding Jesus' appearance how are we able to recognize his image? How has a specific facial type become so closely associated with Jesus? How has this type changed over time while retaining its identity? Is Jesus' image a mental construct built on centuries-long tradition whose continuity has fed the imagination of artists and patrons alike? Does a similar typology exist for representations of the Virgin Mary?
These questions are at the core of Icons of Portraits? Images of Jesus and Mary from the Collection of Michael Hall. The 114 objects on display, dating from the twelfth through the twentieth centuries, are from the private collection of Michael Hall. Many have never been exhibited or published before. The five thematic sections define the parameters of our investigation: Madonna and Child; Marian and Christological Narratives; Passion Narratives; The Body of Christ; and Icons or Portraits? Within each section notable iconographic types are further discussed and the textual sources, both biblical and non-canonical, are given for specific images where appropriate. As a group, the works in the exhibition tell the story of representing the sacred, and creating a repertory of images whose strength and endurance through the centuries is derived from their miraculous origins or reliance on prototypes of authority. On a different level, they also tell the story of decades of passionate collecting and intimate knowledge of art.