What do we know about Mary Magdalene whose feast is celebrated on July 22? She is in all four gospels. In Luke (8:1-3) she is named as Mary surnamed the Magdalene who had been cured of evil spirits and ailments. In Mark and Matthew (Mk. 15:40, Mt 27:61) she heads the list of the women present at the passion and burial of Our Lord. In John (19:25) she is mentioned after Jesus’ mother Mary and her sister at the foot of the cross. John also describes her going to the tomb alone and, in tears, finding the body of Jesus missing. John awards her the distinction of the first person to see the risen Christ and gives her the privilege of announcing the resurrection to the apostles (Jn 20:1-8)
Throughout the centuries Mary Magdalene’s story has been confused with that of Mary of Bethany, Mary of Egypt, the sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke’s gospel and a reformed prostitute. If you Google “Mary Magdalene” and look for images, you will find that many artists in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance had a fine time with the image of the reformed prostitute (usually half or fully naked) while others picture her with an alabaster jar anointing Jesus’ feet or languishing in meditation draped around a skull.
The Orthodox Church titles her “Myrrh-Bearer and Equal of the Apostles.” Orthodox art will show her with a jar of myrrh for anointing the body of Jesus. In the Orthodox tradition when the apostles left Jerusalem to spread the good news, Mary Magdalene went with them She went to Rome preaching the message, “I have seen the Risen Lord.” The story is that she visited the Emperor Tiberius and gave him an egg and said, “Christ has risen.” The emperor laughed and replied that Christ rising from the dead was as likely as the egg turning red. The egg then turned a bright red, and many icons of Mary show her with a red egg in her hand. The Orthodox tradition has her going to Ephesus and dying there. In the Roman Catholic tradition she goes to Gaul where she dies. For more than you might want to know about Mary Magdalene and her different identities and traditions, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Magdalene.
There are two representations of Mary Magdalene in art that I want to share. The first is a terra cotta statue by Niccolo dell’Arca (1462-63) that is part of a Pieta (the group of people mentioned in the gospels as present at the crucifixion). See left. This piece is in Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna, Italy. Mary is rushing headlong in anguish toward the body of Jesus on the ground. The image captures feelings of horror and pain at the death of Jesus and the sight of his body. Mary is pictured as powerful, passionate and full of movement.
The second piece is by Bruce Wolfe (b. 1941) and is located in the Mission Santa Barbara in California. See right. This Mary is sad, calmer, attentive but no less full of power. She has Middle Eastern features and a serene earthiness. Like the dell’Arca figure all her attention is focused on Jesus but this time on the Risen Jesus. One can visualize this Mary preaching to the Emperor Tiberius.
I hope this brief blog will sparkyour interest in the woman Mary Magdalene, her rich and varied tradition and the art inspired by her.
Sr. Deborah Harmeling, OSB