Mary Magdalene is just a mystery. She is one of the most charming characters or faces in the gospel. Her devotion to Christ is unparalleled, which may explain our admiration or affection for her. She is, I believe, the incorruptible heroine of the faith, and not the sinful and fallen woman that she was portrayed in the Middle Ages. I think it’s fair to say that we are astute enough to understand that the attempts to tarnish her name were made for selfish or chauvinistic purposes.
The following article is a very brief study of Mary Magdalene, accompanied by some of the more interesting historical paintings or interpretations of her. It is important to note that many great artists over the centuries have interpreted it in their own way for dramatic or propaganda purposes. They were, of course, influenced by what the church considered acceptable at the time, but that was not always the case. I have selected just a few for the purposes of this article.
Magdalene with a smoking flame, Georges de la Tour, France, 1638-1640
Georges de la Tour’s “Magdalene with a Smoking Flame” is one of the simplest yet strikingly beautiful portraits of the beloved Mary Magdalene. It caught my attention some time ago because of its shrewd use of shadow and light. Our gaze is drawn to the glow of the candle, illuminating the pale face of the Magdalene. She sits frozen in a state of contemplation. The scripture book, the scourge (whip) and the skull also add intrigue to the scene. One or more of these elements is almost always present in depictions of Mary Magdalene. Of particular interest is the skull, which is sometimes said to emphasize Mary’s nostalgic longing for Christ. Is that why she presses her left hand to her face? She is sad? Summing up, is it fair to say that she must have been very close to Jesus? It occupies a prominent place in his last days, as all the gospels point to.
Appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection of Alexander Andreevich Ivanov, c. 1835
Mary’s relationship (so to speak) with Jesus is primarily defined in the Gospels. At last count, there are at least a dozen references to her in relation to Jesus. The important thing is that she appears at the forefront of the most important moment of his life: she stays with Jesus when the disciples leave him in his hour of need, she mourns his death at the crucifixion, she is present at the tomb when the body of Jesus is absent. , and most importantly, as shown here in the picture of Alexander Andreevich, she is the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his amazing resurrection. Also through Mary, she subsequently conveys the message of Christ to others that He has risen.
The Penitent Magdalene on Titan, c. 1533
The story of Mary Magdalene in the Gospels is unique. As a woman, she occupies an important place in the last days of Jesus’ life. However, by the end of the sixth century, the story of Mary, for chauvinistic purposes, passes from canonical text into legend. (In short, some critics believe that her story was twisted to expose her as a rival of St. Peter’s.) Interestingly, Mary Magdalene is now identified as part of a trio of Marys associated with Christ. This is, of course, confusing, and in my opinion it is Pope Gregory’s fault. Having said that, I’m not entirely sure that he did it with malicious intent. In his sermon in 591, he permanently associated Magdalene with Mary of Egypt as a repentant sinner (harlot), tarnishing her reputation for the next fourteen centuries. (Mary Magdalene was championed as a repentant sinner primarily by Western Christianity. It is important to note that this view was not shared by the Eastern Orthodox Church. They argued that she was an exceptionally devoted disciple of Christ.)
James Carroll in his article “Who is Mary Magdalene” for the Smithsonian, points out that this false portrayal of her, in short, helped “discredit sexuality in general and disempower women in particular.”
Is it fair to say that this “discredit” of Mary went too far in her medieval portraits? For example, it has long been fashionable to depict the Magdalene naked or with very little clothing. In particular, the famous Titan painting of Mary Magdalene gives us a glimpse into a world that combined eroticism and religion to great effect. The Titan was probably trying to shock, but, to his credit, he covers Mary’s naked body with her long hair to symbolize her in a moment of delight and deep remorse.
Mary Magdalene in the Cave, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, 1876
“Mary Magdalene in the Cave” for me is another striking interpretation of Jules Joseph Lefebvre as a “fallen woman”, which is worth paying attention to. In it, Mary is flattened on the ground in a cave, presumably shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus during her flight from Jerusalem. For some, this is again another injustice to the character of Magdalene as a heroine of faith. (Despite this, as a painting depicting the female form, it is still quite beautiful.) Nevertheless, it is important to understand that even in 1876, when it was painted, the idea of Magdalene as a fallen woman or a sinner who has overcome her shortcomings, gave pleasure to those who were ashamed of their own sexual transgression. Interestingly, the reason Mary Magdalene is often depicted naked in many paintings like this one is to symbolize her rejection of worldly goods, including clothing. All she needs seems to be her faith in Christ.
Jesus and Mary Magdalene, painting by Lucas Cranach, 1520, Friedenstein Castle in Gotha, Germany.
We cannot seriously continue our brief look at Mary Magdalene without paying attention to the light she (and Jesus) shed in the apocryphal gospels. Some theologians argue that the mere mention of these books is heresy, while others argue that Mary Magdalene in these texts may be closer to the historical Mary that many people yearn for.
The very surprising “truths” in these gospels suggest that Mary Magdalene had a very intimate relationship with Jesus, which could be interpreted as being his partner, perhaps even his wife. I see no reason to be angry at such an assumption. But let me ask you, what if it were true? Surely we could all relate more to Jesus, who is capable of earthly affairs? However, since there is not enough historical evidence, it is probably best to leave this dispute alone.
Myrrh-bearing women at the tomb of Christ, circa 1235 AD, Mileshev Monastery in Serbia.
Since the image of Mary Magdalene has changed so much over time, it is not surprising that it is difficult to determine the truth or version of the truth. According to the gospels, Mary Magdalene’s greatest claim is her presence at the resurrection of Jesus, not the myth-making claims of her as a prostitute. The image of her myrrh-bearing woman at the tomb of Jesus in Orthodox art is perhaps the closest to the version of the truth that I personally like. The writers of the gospel could easily distort history by placing an important man in the place of Magdalena. On the contrary, the presence of Mary, who first saw the resurrection of Jesus, gives the gospels a little more credibility. (The legitimacy of the New Testament will always be in question. Some people argue that can we really trust the historical accuracy of many such ancient books? Isn’t it more important to focus on the message of the Gospels than on their accuracy?)
Thus, the Eastern Orthodox views on Mary Magdalene, glorified as the Myrrhbearer, and not as a penitent, are close to me. Unfortunately, I cannot speak for others, and it still remains a mystery to many. However, what is not disputed is her special place in Christianity as a saint and the first female “apostle”. In short, I think it’s safe to say (although we don’t really know much about her) that she was an important and determined woman who put her faith in Christ above all else.
Note. This selected article was originally published in 2016. It has been moved to the front pages to further emphasize the original content of this site.