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Mary Magdalene in Art: Sinner or Saint?

Depictions of the biblical Mary Magdalene can be traced back to paintings of early Christianity all the way up to art of contemporary practice. Some believe these depictions to be a testament of the power of Mary’s biblical persona, reflecting not only the importance of the Mary Magdalene story throughout Christian history, but also the changing values of cultures at the time that these artworks were created. Some of these themes reflect the changing status of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the roles of women in the Bible as well as in contemporary practice, and perhaps most prominently, the dualistic representation and fascination with Mary Magdalene as sinner and saint.

Depictions of Mary Magdalene in European Art

Beginning in early Christianity, depictions of Mary Magdalene in European art appear in the earliest forms of Christian art as well as in more experimental representations of the twentieth century. The following are some famous representations of Mary Magdalene in art, accompanied by brief interpretations that have been put forth by various biblical and art scholars.

Mary Magdalene in Early Christianity
Christian iconography of Mary Magdalene identifies the image of Mary as the first witness of the Resurrection, as the apostle to the apostles, as a preacher-evangelist, and as the archetypal penitent saint. This is perhaps not surprising considering the nature of biblical representations of Mary Magdalene.

Pictures of Mary Magdalene in early Christian works tended to represent biblical female figures, and particularly Saint Mary Magdalene, in allegorical terms. In other words, biblical women in early Christianity were depicted as representing certain ideas, particularly as symbols of spiritual life and the new church. These saintly depictions in Christian art were represented in works such as the Leaf of Ascension Diptych. Some believe this to symbolize the formulation of the female ideals of virtue and modesty supported by Church fathers.

The Middle Ages
The European middle ages represents the rise of Mary Magdalene figured as a counter-heroine. Many believe that these negative representations of the formerly saintly figure reflect a male dominated and oppressive culture that is tied to the rise of Christianity as a dominant religion, and thus one that is tied to the rules of the imperial court which devalued the role of women in the fourth century. It is during the sixth century that the Roman Catholic Church officially sanctioned the image of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute.

Nonetheless, a surge of depictions of Mary Magdalene in art took place during this time and representations of the Saint could be found in the form of statues, paintings, friezes, altar panels and manuscript illustrations. During this time, Mary Magdalene was admired for her biblical status as the woman to first witness the resurrection, who taught apostles the truth when they were led astray, as a preacher during a time when women were not allowed to preach, and as a woman who defied male opposition. The Middle Ages were a time of plague, pestilence, famine and war; some believe that the veneration of Mary Magdalene offered comfort, support, and spiritual solace during these events, as exemplified in Giotto’s eleventh century fresco entitled Noli Me Tangere.

Typical depictions of Mary Magdalene in art represented events such as receiving her commission from Christ, reading Scripture, and preaching to townsfolk. One example of such a depiction is a twelfth-century Psalter of St. Albans in England where Mary Magdalene is figured addressing the apostles who listen to her with their heads bowed.

The Middle Ages also represents the beginning of images created of Mary Magdalene as a beautiful, young woman who is partially or fully nude.

The Renaissance, Reformation, and Twentieth Century
Renaissance and Baroque depictions of Mary Magdalene and other biblical women often combined Christian spirituality and history with an exploration of the nude female form. This can be exemplified in both Caravaggio as well as Titian’s Repentant Magdalene.

The Reformation brought with it increasing discussions as well as depictions of women as immoral and fallen. Some have compared depictions of Mary Magdalene during this time as a shift from the saint who was the biblical witness of the resurrection, to being represented as a sinner herself. This appears to be the beginning of a common representation that would predominate in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Industrial Revolution was a period of changing gender roles as women entered the workforce and newly industrialized cities were met with plagues and sexual prostitution. Mary Magdalene thus became a common name amongst preachers hoping to provide guidance during this time. Meanwhile, nineteenth century artists such as Wagner, Rilke and Rodin drew inspiration from depictions of Mary Magdalene, creating artistic explorations of her sexuality and even depicting an erotic connection between Mary and Jesus.

Nonetheless, the spiritual power of the images of the archetypal Mary Magdalene have been noted in the works of artists such as Picasso in the twentieth century, whose Weeping Woman figures repeatedly throughout his works and has been compared to the weeping Magdalene motif of Christian art.


Jesus of Nazareth Mary Magdalene: Mariamne Early Christianity
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