ArtSmart Roundtable – Images of Mary Magdalene
The monthly ArtSmart Roundtable brings together some of the best art history-focused travel blogs with a post on a common theme. For February we are discussing the iconography of a few historical, religious or mythical figures to help you “read” some of the images you may encounter on the road. I’ve always thought that understanding the context and source material for imagery really deepens your appreciation for art. You can find links below to all the group’s articles this month.
I love seeing Saints in European art because it is so easy to tell who everyone is. There is a characteristic object or dress to each figure that helps you decipher his or her identity. I’ve always been partial to John the Baptist with his wild man appearance and camel hair attire. But what about the saints with less straight-forward stories? Theological and historical confusion has long shrouded St. Mary Magdalene; consequently, she has a complex visual iconography.
There is Biblical evidence that “Mary Magdalene” was actually three different women: 1) a prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet, 2) the sister of Martha and Lazarus who stayed to listen to Jesus preach and 3) a rich but sick woman cured by Jesus who became a close disciple. There is a strong propensity in the art of the historic European Catholic Church to combine all of these women together. A feminist reading of Mary’s treatment would suggest that the prostitute aspect was added to her identity to downplay her significant role as a disciple. However you want to deconstruct this Mary (or Marys?), the iconography of Mary Magdalene can be separated into three themes although they are still very cross-referential.
Mary the Disciple
The wealthy Mary of Magdala (a city along the Sea of Galilee) was said to be cured of an illness by Jesus and became a close follower of his. While the 12 Disciples scattered during the crucifiction, it was Mary Magdalene, Mother Mary and John that stay at the cross. It these images, Mary Magdalene tends to be the most devoted and distraught with her characteristic strawberry blonde hair flowing wildly, such as can be seen in the Isenheim Altarpiece.
Mary was also among a group of women who visit the tomb three days after Jesus’ burial and was the first to recognizes the resurrected Christ in a garden according to the Gospel of John. There are numerous Noli me tangere (Don’t touch me) paintings depicting this theologically very significant moment. I particularly love this scene because she is typically reaching ecstatically toward Jesus.
Mary the Sinner
In the Gospel of Luke, an upset, repentant “sinful woman” washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair and anointed him with an alabaster jar of perfume. This woman has long been interpreted to be a prostitute and is depicted as a wild woman, often clothed only in her own hair. Following her conversion, as the Legenda Aurea tells, Mary Magdalene moved to France and lived as a poor, prayerful hermit. Interestingly, while Mary the Disciple is an accepted part of Passion imagery, her long, flowing hair still links her to this “fallen woman”.
Donatello’s Mary Magdalene is probably one of the most moving pieces of art I have ever seen. In Renaissance Florence, a world of beautiful paintings and visual accomplishments, Donatello created a haggard, frail and unmistakeably penitent woman. This piece synthesized the drama and emotion of Gothic art with a new-found sense of realism.
Mary the Reflective
The final visual aspect of Mary Magdalene is of a studious and contemplative woman. This encompasses some aspect of all three women: Mary the the forgiven prostitute who turned to a quiet pious life, Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus who wanted to learn more and thus exemplifies the behavior of a devout lady, and finally Mary the rich woman of Magdala who forsakes the material world upon being healed. Georges de la Tour executed several images of this Mary Magdalene bathed in a warm, radiant light.
Contemplative Mary Magdalene is typically well-dressed but holding an alabaster jar. While today one could argue that this jar symbolizes the perfumes used by the two Marys to anoint the dead body of Christ, most contemporary observers would have associated this with the forgiven prostitute. The image below states as much and shows the strong visual link between all aspects of Mary Magdalene even if the theological connection was much more fuzzy.
And if that we’re confusing enough….
Artists were also not consistent in how they depicted Mary Magdalene, no one maybe more so than Botticelli. Here are four of his paintings which feature different visual facets of Mary Magdalene.
Holy Trinity (Pala della Convertite), 1491-1493, Courtauld Gallery, London – A hair clad and wild woman
Crucifixion, 1497, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University – A lone long haired disciple who clings to the Cross
Madonna and Child with Six Saints (Sant’Ambrogio Altarpiece), 1470, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence – A demure Mary with her alabaster jar
Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints, 1490, Alte Pinakothek, Munich – Both Mary Magdalene and Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus are present at the feet and head of Jesus (shown below)
Mary Magdalene remains a complex figure in Christian art. Hopefully you can spot the different aspects associated with her hagiography in the next picture you see of this 1 woman (or 3 women, as the case may be)!
For the rest of the February ArtSmart Roundtable, see:
- Erin of A-Sense-of-Place: Finding the Giant in Western Art
- Lesley Peterson of Culture Tripper: Buddha
And don’t forget to check out our group on Facebook for art & travel news!