You may have noticed a particular image of Our Lady has been popping up in your social media feeds recently. This “viral” meme is a sculpture titled, “The Veiled Virgin” by an Italian sculptor named Giovanni Strazza who lived from 1818-1875. The sculpture itself is now held by the sisters of the Congregation of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is both strange and wonderful that this sculpture is in such a remote location, but has somehow become an Internet phenomenon over 140 years after the artist’s death.
First of all, you may be wondering, who is Giovanni Strazza? He is obscure enough that his Wikipedia entry in English is only two lines and even the Italian version provides only the barest outline of his artistic career and no personal details whatsoever. The latter does link to a critical review of the Great Exposition of 1851 in London which exhibited one of Strazza’s earlier works, “Ishmael in the Desert,” which was perhaps his most famous piece among his contemporaries. At the time of the exposition, Milan was occupied by Austria, and the review offers Strazza the faint praise of being one of the comparatively few artists featured in the Austrian pavilion who was of any artistic merit.
Further scant details come from the autobiography of Giovanni Duprè, who was a friend and traveling companion of Strazza. From Duprè, we learn that Strazza was eminent enough in the art world of his day that he was sought as the judge for a sculpture competition held in Naples. Also, Strazza and Duprè were both invited to judge Italian entries for the Universal Exposition of 1873 held in Vienna. In his brief reminiscence, Duprè describes Strazza as cultivated, polished, and of an amiable demeanor, but that is all we get. From another source, we learn that Strazza was appointed as a professor at the Brera Academy in Milan in 1860 after that city-state’s liberation from the Austrians. He would go on to teach sculpture there until his death.
Turning then to the statue itself, the exact date of its composition is lost to history, as are the exact details of how it came to be in Canada. Was it a commission or a gift? It is strangely mysterious that such a masterful work of art is shrouded–not only literally, with the exquisite effect of the transparent veil–but also metaphorically with so many unknowns. This is surely a consequence of the great turmoil in Italy during the 1850’s. In any case, the statue’s arrival in St. John’s from Rome was notable enough that it was announced in the local newspaper.
Largely as an expression of the chaotic wars of Italian independence and unification, the theme of a veiled woman was a popular subject of Italian artists during the Risorgimento as an allegory of their country. However, the grief of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the death of Our Lord is delicately and masterfully portrayed by Strazza in what is arguably the finest example of this technique. Where other pieces appear slashed by the folds and drapes of the veil, Strazza’s Virgin Mary makes the transitions seem effortless and seamlessly maintains the smooth and soft femininity of her features. We know nothing of Strazza’s personal religious devotion, but this statue seems to be the work of a hand guided by God.
In the 19th century then, it seems Strazza was of some modest fame in Europe, but his name had only just touched the shores of the American continent. Today, his work has achieved what he never could have dreamed in his own lifetime. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, his pensive and anguished depiction of “The Veiled Virgin” is visible to an audience of millions. His work has achieved one of the highest aspirations of art, which is to communicate the artist’s values and ideals to posterity. With so much in the world today which subverts those lofty aims, it is reassuring to know that long after we are gone, we may yet be remembered for some unknown and obscure masterpiece which is ignored and even scorned in the decadence and excesses of the present age.