Visions of Mary
An Author Interview with Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua
by Lisa M. Hendey
The Virgin Mary, our Blessed Mother - she graces the halls of the world’s greatest museums and the walls of some of the world’s poorest homes. Her image has been captured by artists and given homage by pilgrims. Recent news stories even celebrated the return of a much beloved statue of Our Lady of Matara, recovered in the aftermath of the recent, horrific tsunami, and the relief of one devoted Sri Lankan priest and his congregation.
In their new book Visions of Mary (Harry N. Abrams, December, 2004, hardcover, 144 pages) authors Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua have collaborated to present a stunning look at the image of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Moving beyond the trite “coffee-table art” approach, DiPasqua and Calamari share an eclectic and broad ranging composition of pictures, ranging from statues of her international apparitions to simple home shrines. As a compliment to the outstanding photography and artwork that fill its pages, Visions of Mary includes comprehensive reference material written in an engaging style.
I had the recent opportunity to interview the authors about Visions of Mary and their work together.
Q: Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua, authors of the exquisite new book Visions of Mary thank you for participating in this Book Spotlight. Please tell us a bit about yourselves and this collaborative partnership.
Barbara: Years ago, Sandy shared an art studio with my husband Louie. She was one of the top magazine art directors in New York and was taking a break to pursue more creative projects. I was a writer, freelancing in TV.
Sandy: I had always wanted to design books. Barbara and I talked about collaborating on something. At the time, there was an article in the paper on how all the book companies were buying spiritual books. It was a big fad in the late 90's.
Barbara: Feng Shue, meditation, hindu, buddhist, kabala - we kicked around a lot of ideas.
Sandy: All the big bookstores had something called the ‘Spiritual Table’ in the front which contained the newer religion books.
Barbara: Finally, we thought we should do something Catholic. One, because we grew up Catholic and two, because there didn’t seem to be anything on the ‘Spiritual Table’ that was Catholic.
Sandy: Basically, we wanted to make a Catholic book that anyone would pick up and read out of curiosity. Just as we would pick up a book on Buddhism or the Kabala.
Barbara: We began to visit Catholic churches which is easy to do in New York City where there is a Catholic church every few blocks. These churches are always open and they are very traditional, filled with candles and saint statues with little notes from people asking for favors.
Sandy: One thing that makes our religion so different is the saints and their patronages. .
Barbara: People love the saints. And every church in the city still has certain days for novenas - prayers to certain saints. We began collecting the little prayers left by people saying novenas.
Sandy: This became our first book, “Novena: The Power of Prayer”. Instead of using famous paintings of saints, we used images we all grew up with - old holy cards. We deliberately took the project to mainstream publishers. Not the religious press. To our amazement, it was well received everywhere it went. The editors who were Catholic loved it because it seemed so familiar to them. The non-Catholics loved it because it seemed so mysterious to them.
Barbara: Because of the success of “Novena”, other companies have asked us for projects. Thus far, we have completed four more Catholic themed books.
Q: Visions of Mary is, simply put, a stunning book! What was your goal for this project? Please tell us how the book came about.
Sandy: The Catholic religion is very visual. Windows, statues, paintings, mosaics, art is everywhere. Mary probably has inspired more art than anyone.
Barbara: While we were working on the “Holy Cards” book, we happened to mention to our editor that we were basically concentrating on images of the saints. There were so many different versions of Mary, it would get too confusing.
Sandy: Mary and baby Jesus, Mary ascending into heaven, Mary suffering with knives in her heart, Mary appearing to people...
Barbara: Not being a Catholic, he was intrigued and asked us to gather up different visions of Mary. In doing research we found that Mary is sometimes kind and gentle, she can be angry, she can be sad. She has hundreds of titles. She’s appeared as every race.
Sandy: Father Eugene Carrella, the holy card collector who we worked on “Holy Cards” with insisted that we contact Mrs. Micki Cesario. Over many years she has built a collection of holy cards devoted to the depictions of the Virgin Mary from all over the world. She has hundreds and hundreds of cards from Asia, Africa, Europe, all with their own version of Mary.
Barbara: Chris Sweet, our editor, thought this was a natural as a next book.
Q: Visions of Mary focuses on the many incarnations of Our Lady and how she affects people in their everyday lives. How did you go about selecting the images you share in this book?
Sandy: As a designer, I was not interested in repeating the same format as “Holy Cards”. We wanted the “Visions of Mary” book to show how Mary is a common image in the lives of Roman Catholics. You go into the tailor shop, there’s a Mary statue, she’s on the dashboard of a car, you visit someone, there is a print of Mary mixed in with their family photographs. Most books on the Blessed Mother tend to use the great master paintings. We felt it was really important to show “everyday” Mary’s. We decided to mix photographs of these Marys in with the holy cards.
Barbara: We tried to stay away from the treacly, sweet embellishments that too many religious books have when relaying the stories of the different incarnations of Mary. This rule went for the images and the writing. We basically tried to make a book that we would read and look at.
Sandy: We were very fortunate to know a photographer who was traveling to Mexico, Cuba and New Orleans on another project. We asked her to shoot just typical Mary images whenever she saw them.
Barbara: She had no trouble finding Marys, she came back with hundreds of stills. One of our big problems was balancing out the images so that they came from the different views of Mary and different parts of the world.
Sandy: Larry Racioppo, a photographer for the City of New York had quite a few pictures of backyard shrines, bedroom shelves and street festivals featuring the Madonna. We used other photographs from a neighborhood photographer in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Not having a big photo budget, we then had to make do with images sent from shrines or from photo archives. We even acquired one from Egyptian television of an apparition of Mary that occurred there in the 1960's. The main thing we were trying to capture with the image was the respect Mary has from people.
Q: The Blessed Mother plays such a special role in Catholicism and inspires intense devotion. What are some of the moving ways you've seen this devotion transformed into art form?
Barbara: As a writer, it is amazing to read the Mary inspired mystics. Many of them modern day and many of them converts. Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day come to mind. Most of the Carmelite saints were fervidly devoted to Mary. Chartres Cathedral, probably the greatest artistic achievement in the Western Hemisphere was created to honor Mary.
Sandy: Walk through any museum, Mary is in the greatest paintings.
Q: What are some of your favorite images from Visions of Mary?
Barbara: I think the photograph of the “Gone with the Wind” movie poster is amazing. You the stars of that film in Tara and in the background is Our Lady of Guadalupe. Lisa Silvestri photographed it at a flea market in Mexico. It’s as if the Mexican distributor of the film couldn’t imagine a home without an image of Our lady of Guadalupe.
Sandy: Some of my favorite photographs were of the home altars and outdoor shrines. I love to see the image of Mary next to common place objects and the story it tells.
Q: I loved your previous book, Holy Cards and read that you shared some of the collection of Father Eugene Carrella in this book as well, but the images in this book range from the traditional to the modern. How have images of Mary transformed over time? What has remained constant?
Sandy: The older images of Mary were created by artistic monks and holy people. Icons are still “channeled” by very devout monks with a special calling. The Mary in these works is a bit aloof and distant. As the printing process became cheaper and more universal, pictures of the Virgin Mary were in great demand in the general public. Instead of just copying the old masters, many of the printing companies hired commercial artists to render portraits of Mary. She basically stares out at you with big eyes and is a much more relatable figure.
Barbara: You feel like you know her. That she is in your family. I would say that the one thing that remains constant with Mary images, from the great works of art to the cheap plastic statues is the accessibility of the image. They all convey the same message, that Mary is with you. She’s in your car, on the wall of the laundromat, she is not just in church, she is part of our everyday world.
For more information on Visions of Mary visit http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0810955814/catholicmomcom
Lisa M. Hendey, wife, mother and webmaster of http://www.CatholicMom.com is an avid reader of Catholic literature and writes from Fresno, California.