|St. Mary Magdalene,
Follower of Christ
Luke 8:2 (cached) mentions St. Mary Magdalene "out of whom seven devils were gone forth" among the Galilean women following Jesus. Matthew and Mark place her at both the death and burial of Jesus (citations), and the resurrection accounts in all four gospels name her among the women who found Jesus' tomb empty on Easter morning (citations). John's gospel adds an episode in which the risen Jesus appears to her.
Scripture also speaks of a Mary who lived in Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. She figures in the story of the latter's resurrection (John 11 [cached]) and in the episode in which Martha complains of her neglect of housework (Luke 10:38-42 [cached]). She anoints Jesus' feet in John 12:1-3 (cached), arousing Judas' protest over her extravagance.
Matthew 26:6-7 (cached) and Mark 14:3-9 (cached) relate a nearly identical event in Bethany, but without naming the woman or the protestor. In Luke 7:37-38 (cached), the woman with the ointment is a sinner and it is a Pharisee who protests, on the grounds that a prophet should not associate with such a person.
These narratives could conceivably refer to as many as five different women, but at least by the 7th century traditional interpretation agreed that they are all about St. Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, the saint is said to have traveled with her brother and sister to Gaul, preached in Marseilles and Aix, and then retired alone to a contemplative life in the desert, fed by the angels with heavenly nourishment each day at the canonical hours.
St. Mary Magdalene exerted a strong fascination for artists of the high middle ages and later, and she is seen in several distinct types of images. First, late medieval Crucifixions often show St. Mary Magdalene emotionally clinging to the base of the cross (example, 20th century adaptation). Second, we see her in images of the episode in John where the resurrected Jesus appears to her and asks her not to touch him -- "noli me tangere" in Latin (example).
Third, we see images of St. Mary Magdalene in the desert with the conventional attributes of a contemplative -- skull, cross, and book as in this 18th century example, with the addition of a scourge as in this example from the 17th. Or she is seen among these objects experiencing an ecstatic vision of the cross, which is carried to her by angels (one example from the 17th century, another from the 18th, and Titian's version with the ecstasy but no cross). One interesting image of the Lamentation makes an anticipatory reference to this image type.
In most images of these types, as in the simple portraits, St. Mary Magdalene has long, loosened hair, usually blond. She is always young and beautiful, even (with one exception) in images of her time in the desert.
In the portraits and in some of the desert subjects we see as her attribute the alabaster jar of oil that she used to anoint Jesus' feet, as at left and in this example.
Innumerable pages on the Internet claim that an animus against women caused the conflation of St. Mary Magdalene with Martha's sister and the unnamed "sinner" of John 12. The idea is that calling the Magdalene a prostitute diminished her status with the faithful. One might as well say that the Acts of the Apostles diminished Paul's status by noting that he once persecuted Christians, or that Matthew intended to devalue his own gospel when he admitted to having been a tax-collector. Throughout its history the Christian narrative has focused on those who once were lost and now are found, favoring the one reformed sinner who is, as Luke puts it, more prized in Heaven than ninety-nine of the righteous.
In an unusual painting in an obscure corner of Santa Maria sopra Minerva a female figure with long, flowing hair points to the words magistra apostolorum in a book held by St. Barnabas. It is possible that the figure is St. Mary Magdalene: see my page for that painting.
Feast day: July 22
At left, 15th century sculpture from Germany
At Home with Martha:
Vermeer (1655)In the House of the Pharisee:
Cerruti (1757)Voyage to Gaul:
Penitent in Contemplation:
Bulgarini (14th century)With other saints:
In a 16th-century Madonna Enthroned with SaintsStatues:
Mary Magdalene at the Crucifixion:
At the Resurrection: