Saint and Sinner: Mary Magdalene in Art History

Article excerpt

That images of Mary Magdalene are identifiable from the beginnings of Christian art into the present is a sign of her critical importance in Christianity. The iconography of Mary Magdalene in Western art shows her as the first witness to the Resurrection (most frequently in the Noli Me Tangere--"Do not hold on to me," John 20:17-- scenes); as apostle to the apostles; as preacher-evangelist; and as archetypal penitential saint. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, depictions of her Last Communion and penance multiplied, and she came to signify the centrality of the sacraments. During the Counter-Reformation, she became the defender of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic tradition. In the 19th century she was transformed into a femme fatale and a courtesan "with a heart of gold," while 20th-century artists have emphasized the reformed prostitute motif.

The transformations of her image are important for assessing the interpretations of this particular woman and of women in general in Christianity. Visual images are evidence of or react to cultural and theological shifts. Consider the dramatic changes for women when Christianity became the imperial religion in the fourth century and took on all the trappings of the imperial court, including a denigration of the role of women.

When 15th-century Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden depicted Magdalene as a reader, it was an almost impossible situation for a medieval woman. In creating this image, he was likely influenced by the contemporary Christian laywomen's movement of the Beguines who placed great emphasis on literacy as well as by the then-commonly accepted metaphor of reading as a form of contemplation and prayer.

Similarly, the Magdalene received great veneration as a penitential saint during the Middle Ages--a time of plague, pestilence, famine, and war. The daily experience of suffering, misery, and human finitude led to great interest in the archetypal penitent who stood as witness to Jesus' Resurrection and her own spiritual rebirth (witness Giotto's 11th-century fresco Noli Me Tangere). Such images offered spiritual solace. …