Mary Magdalene, first witness to the Resurrection
Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, and probably his financial backer. It is extremely unlikely, well-nigh impossible, that she was a reformed prostitute, but medieval painters loved to show her as such. She was the first witness to the Resurrection, and is called 'Apostle to the Apostles', since the risen Christ told her to ‘go and tell’, apostellein in Greek.
paintings of Mary Magdalene
Mary and the other women (not shown by the painter) approach the tomb on Easter Sunday morning at dawn. They have brought spices and perfumed ointment to anoint the body of Jesus, but it is gone. Mary's grief and confusion overcome her, and she weeps. Then she hears a sound behind her, and turns to look. What is behind her? It is very early in the morning, and at the left of the picture dawn is breaking over the horizon. But a much stronger light is coming from behind Mary's left shoulder, making her cloak shimmer Savoldo suggests the light behind her is stronger than even the light of the sun - and of course the viewer knows that this light is Jesus, resurrected. Bible reference: John 20:11-16
'The First Meeting of Christ and Mary Magdalene', Henryk Siemiradzki,1873
Mary Magdalene's sumptuous clothing and jewellery contrast sharply with the simplicity and dignity of Jesus. His gaze is direct, while she tries to hide herself in the shade. Behind him stand his disciples, straining to see how he will react. Behind her, on the other hand, are a band of reprobates who jeer at this provincial preacher. On the left of the picture, the simple countryside; on the right, ornate Roman architecture. This is a picture of contrasts, essentially a dramatic tableau showing a pivotal moment in Mary's life. Bible reference: Luke 8:1-3
'The Repenting Magdalene', Georges de La Tour, late 1630's
Mary surveys the mirror, symbol of her former vanity and preoccupation with worldly things. It casts a large shadow. Her beauty remains, but she has clearly become aware of the fact that there is more to life than earthly pleasure. Now, in the stillness of night, she reflects on past events, and on her own transformation through the encounter she has had with Jesus.
skull in Mary's lap reminds here that Death is inevitable for all
creatures, and will come to her as well. It suggests that she should
think about the hereafter as well as the present.
'The Penitent Magdalene', Caravaggio, 1597
Caravaggio has managed to capture the image of a woman who has come to the end of the road, too tired to look into her future. This is the moment, he suggests, when she is ready to respond to Jesus' message of redemption. Mary Magdalene is sumptuously dressed, but the discarded jewellery and her slumped figure tell the viewer that she has reached a turning point in her life. Caravaggio portrays her as a rich courtesan, not a common prostitute. In fact, the real Mary Magdalene was neither. She was not the sinner described in Luke 7:36-50, and when Luke does describe an actual prostitute in 15:30, he uses a different word, not 'sinner'.
'Mary Magdalene', detail of head only, Donatello, 1455
In popular legend, Mary Magdalene was portrayed as a repentant sinner who retired to a cave in the desert where she became a penitent hermit. She practised every sort of physical penance and privation, to atone for the sins she supposedly had committed before she was cured by Jesus. There is no biblical evidence for this depiction of Mary Magdalene. It derives from popular legend and medieval tradition only.
Donatello's Mary has a thin, exhausted face and matted, filthy hair. Her emaciated body is clad in ragged animal skins. She is barefoot and bare armed. Her repentance is obviously sincere, but her self-abasement is not appealing. The sculpture is currently held in the Duomo Museum, Florence. It had become blackened by time, but after the terrible flood in 1966 it was cleaned and restored to its present appearance.
'Mary Magdalene in the house of Simon the Pharisee', Jean Beraud, 1891
The story of the woman with the alabaster jar is transported into 19th century France. This interesting and technically accomplished painting pulls the event in Luke 7:36-50 into the modern world. Only the figure of Jesus is timeless. All the others, including the startled maid at far right, are in modern dress. The painting was controversial when it first appeared, because people rightly suspected that Beraud was trying to make them uncomfortable by confronting them with their own failings, their own hypocrisy. Many of the well-heeled men in the painting would have had mistresses. Now they were confronted with reality, with raw human suffering, and they did not particularly like it. Bible reference: Luke 7:36-50
'The Magdalene Reading', Ambrosius Benson, 1525
Mary, now repentant and reformed, sits quietly reading. Her life of sin is behind her.
As with many other painting of Mary Magdalene, this one contains a representation of an alabaster vase, suggesting that she is the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume made from nard. The red of her dress and her pouting lips encourage the viewer to think of her as no better than she should be.... must have been popular, because Benson painted a v
'The Repentant Magdalene', Antonio Canova, 1809
Mary alone in the desert, repenting her past sins. In the legends that grew up after her death, Mary is supposed to have repented after meeting Christ; she then spent many years in the desert, where she lamented her past sins. In keeping with this tradition, Canova shows her dressed in the clothing of a hermit. The skull beside her is a reminder of death, which must come to all. The figure of Mary once held a cross, symbol of the Crucifixion. She is clearly grief-stricken and helpless. There is no evidence for any of this in the New Testament.
'St. John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene', Filippino Lippi, circa 1500
These two saints of the medieval Church are shown as icons of mortification and penance. Mary is identified by her flowing red hair. Though there is no gospel evidence to show that Mary Magdalene was an ascetic, she is here portrayed alongside John the Baptist, who was. It is surely one of the most depressing paintings, and would hardly recommend the ascetic way of life - with self-mortification and self-imposed privation - to the viewer.
This painting contrasts sharply with the work produced by Fra Filippo Lippi, father of Filippino Lippo. The older man is supposed to have abducted a nun, who became the mother of Filippino - though this cannot have been a youthful passion, since Filippino was born when his father was about fifty years old.
St John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, Hans Memling
In contrast to the painting above it, this image has a sumptuously dressed Magdalene.
'Mary Magdalene', Rogier van der Weyden. circa 1445
supposedly repenting her many sins, sits reading quietly and spending
her time in reflection. Notice
the small white lidded jar on the floor beside her. Throughout
the centuries, Mary Magdalene was confused with the woman with the
alabaster jar, described in Luke 7:36-50; the story of this other woman
comes just before Mary Magdalene in the story sequence - but in fact
there is no connection between the two women, other than this proximity
in the gospel lay-out. Why then did the idea of Mary the sinner become
so popular? One reason is that Mary Magdalene, as a fallen woman, made a
dramatic contrast with Mary of Nazareth, the perfect virgin/mother.
' The Dead Christ Mourned - the Three Maries', Annibale Carracci, 1603
The scene shows the Galilean women lamenting over Jesus' dead body. He lies across the knees of his mother. Mary Magdalene, identified by her luxuriant hair and red dress, raises her arms in a piteous gesture.
The moment when Jesus is taken down from the cross is not described in any of the gospels, but it is a popular subject in art - think of Michelangelo's 'Pietá', where it reached perhaps its highest point. None of the gospels have all of this group present at the crucifixion - only John's gospel, for example, has Mary the mother of Jesus present. The other gospels do not mention her at the crucifixion. For information about burial customs at the time, and how women cared for the bodies of family members who died, see Major Events in women's lives Bible reference: Mark 15:40, John 19:25
'At the Foot of the Cross', Macha Chmakoff, circa 1990's
It is Good Friday, and the women stand silently at the foot of the cross. Macha Chmakoff's image of the women has a timeless dream-like quality. The figures are shadowy, wrapped in silence, yet each of them has an individual quality, as if each was a personality in her own right. They, not the cross, dominate the scene. Contrast this with the women in the painting by He Qi, further down the page. Both paintings are modern, painted at roughly the same time, yet they could not be more different. Bible reference: John 19:25-27
Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grunewald, 1432
Magdalene, identified by her long hair, kneels at the foot of the cross.
Behind her is Mary, mother of Jesus, and John. This is an extraordinarily realistic
painting of the crucifixion. The figure of Jesus dominates the painting, but the lesser figures,
especially Mary's, reveal their anguish in this horrific moment.
'The Yellow Christ', Gauguin, 1899
The women gather at the foot of the cross. One is in blue, the traditional colour of Mary, mother of Jesus. Gauguin has given this traditional scene of the crucifixion a whole new twist. The figure of Jesus is bathed in radiant yellow gold, reminiscent of the gold of Greek and Russian icons. This gold has suffused Nature itself, all around him - even the trees are turned into vibrant orange. The three Marys, now Breton women in their traditional clothing, are quiet, almost meditative - the horror of so many traditional depictions of the crucifixion is absent from this painting. Gauguin used Breton women again in another religious painting, The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888. Gauguin seems to suggest that the women, on their way home from Sunday Mass, were having an inner struggle like Jacob's, where he wrestled all night with the angel of God. Bible reference: John 19:25-27
La Pietà, Santa Maria della Vita, terra cotta statues, by Niccolò dell’Arca, 1462-63
This realistic statue by Niccolò dell’Arca captures something of Mary Magdalene's anguish and horror when she sees Jesus' dead body lying on the ground. She seems to be running headlong towards him, utterly focused on his inert body. Her expressive hands and wailing mouth cannot leave the viewer of this statue unmoved.
'The Dead Christ ', Andrea Mantegna, 1480-90
'Consider, for a minute, what must be Mangegna's most famous image, of the dead Christ viewed in steep foreshortening, foot to head, laid out on a slab of marble. Painted in muted (and much faded) colors of tempera on canvas, the picture, which hangs in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, has an almost overwhelming effect. There are the feet of Christ, with their lovingly described nail wounds, projecting beyond the marble slab into the viewer's space; the hands, also marked by the nails that pierced them on the cross, gently posed on the folds of the linen sheet that covers the lower half of the corpse; the grief-stricken face of the Virgin, who raises a cloth to wipe away the tears that course down her aged cheeks. All this cannot help but move the susceptible viewer, who finds himself at Christ's feet in the position of Mary Magdalene, who bathed those same feet with her tears. The picture is a tour de force of artistic ingenuity and accomplishment, and it is no wonder that it has had such a lasting effect on so many later artists. Emptiness and silence, broken only by the sobbing of the claustrophobically grouped mourning figures. (Keith Christiansen, The New Republic)
'The Risen Christ with
the Two Marys in the Garden of Joseph of Aramathea'
two Marys (but which two?) in the garden where the tomb was. Jesus has
thrown off the swathe of tapes that bound him in death, and stands
triumphantly tall. His resurrected body is surrounded by a halo of
light, signalling that his body, though still showing wounds from the
crucifixion (see his left side) is transformed into an unearthly
'Women Arriving at the Tomb', He Qi, 1999
The women who were Jesus' closest friends now gather at the tomb to anoint his body with spices and carry out the rituals required for burial of the dead. But the tomb is empty. (See information on ancient burial customs at Bible Archaeology: Tombs. He Qi is able to infuse even this sombre moment with color and energy. The women's gaze focuses on the tomb, from which a white lily springs. Jesus is not there. They are perplexed - notice the different hand gestures of each one, so aptly expressing their emotions. They are modestly dressed but flamboyantly female, even in this poignant moment. Notice also the butterfly behind them - a symbol of the risen Jesus? Bible reference: Luke 24:1-12
'Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene at the Empty Tomb', artist unknown
Mary is bent, huddled, distraught at the disappearance of Jesus' body. Then she hears her name spoken, and turns, looking upward to Jesus standing behind her. This poignant image captures the moment of Mary's incomprehension, as she hears her name spoken by someone she knows is dead. After all, she has been present at the crucifixion of Jesus, seen his sagging body removed from the cross, and been the one who laid out his corpse in the tomb. But now, inexplicably, she recognizes his voice. This image is closer to pictures of Mary in modern films - see Top Ten Bible Films Bible reference: John 20:17
'Noli me tangere' (Do not touch me), Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11
Magdalene encounters Jesus in the garden, after the resurrection. She
reaches out to touch him, but he draws back, and tells her not to hold
on to him. 'Noli me
tangere' - 'Don't
touch me'. Or is it 'Don't hang on to me'? Which of these two
translations is the better? They mean such different things. The first
phrase refers to the mystery of the Resurrection. Jesus in his
resurrected form is not in the same body he was before his death -
it is resurrection, not resuscitation. The second phrase can mean
something quite different, and is often the advice given to people
suffering grief. It's as if the dead person tells the one
still living not to live in the past, not to keep hanging onto the way
life used to be, but to move ahead with their life, into their own future.
'St Catherine of Alexandria, St Peter and Mary Magdalene', Carlo Crivelli, 1475
Mary is grouped with other great saints of the medieval Church. She is dressed in flamboyant red, a colour with all sort of connotations. Sexual passion and license, the allure of the sinful woman, a come-and-get-me colour. There is in fact no reason at all to think that Mary had been a prostitute. She had been cured of a severe illness, and Jesus had summoned 'seven demons' from her. But many illnesses, such as epilepsy, where supposedly caused by evil spirits or demons entering the body, and 'seven' simply denoted the severity of her illness. In fact, the nature of the illness is unspecified. Only later, when celibate male scholars wrote about the story, was Mary's illness linked to her sexuality.
'St Mary Magdalene', artist: unknown
This modern-day icon is in All Saints Orthodox Church in Manhattan, Kansas. It glows with colour, with the jewel-like quality of Russian and Greek icons when they are first produced. The lines are simple, restrained, steeped in tradition.
'Mary Magdalene', artist unknown
This delicate portrait of Mary Magdalene is made entirely of inlaid wood. This remarkable art form reached its height in northern Italy in the later 15th and early 16th centuries.
'St Mary Magdalene', Piero di Cosimo, 1500-10
A repentant Mary reads from a book. There is no attempt at historical or gospel accuracy. Beautiful, serene, intellectual - the Renaissance ideal of womanhood, in fact. The Mary Magdalene of the gospels is nowhere to be seen, replaced by this calm red-headed woman.
The implication of the painting is that Mary, now filled with serene love for her Saviour, spends her waking hours in meditation. This begs the question: which Mary is this? Mary Magdalene, whom the medieval Church depicted as a repentant sinner? The woman with the alabaster jar, as in Luke 7:36-50? Or Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who loved to sit and listen to Jesus rather than help with the housework? By the 1500's, artists were representing a composite of all three women.
Mary Magdalene's story Saint or Sinner - of both?
is nothing romantic or even sexy about Mary’s story. Her hometown
Magdala was a thriving centre of the fishing industry, producing smoked
fish in large quantities. That’s how she made her money, not as a
she did have a serious illness – just what it was we do not
know. People believed some illnesses like schizophrenia or epilepsy were
caused by evil spirits entering the body, and she was thought to have
seven of them living in her body. That meant she was very ill indeed.
at some point in her life, Mary met an itinerant miracle worker called
Jesus, and he cured her. She was bowled over by him, and became a
faithful supporter. She led a group of women who travelled with Jesus,
and who supported him financially. She led the women’s group, Peter
led the men’s.
When things went badly wrong at Passover time in Jerusalem, she stood by Jesus. She was close to him during his life. She would be close to him when he faced death. The men disciples fled – there was every possibility they might be next. But Mary stood as near to the cross as she could, watching every dreadful action, hearing every scream. No one can imagine what it was like.
When he was finally dead, silent at last, they took him down from the cross. Then she faced the task that every Jewish woman had to do sooner or later – preparing the body of someone she loved for burial.
all had to be done quickly – the Sabbath was about to begin. This
meant that ointments and spices could not be bought. The women would
have to come back after the Sabbath and complete the task.
the earliest opportunity, they returned to the tomb where his body had
been placed. There was no one there. The soldiers were nowhere to be
seen, and the place seemed deserted. Jesus’ body was gone. Where was
it? A young man at the tomb said that Jesus was gone – but gone where?
collapsed on the ground. Everything was wrong. Then someone spoke to
her, said her name, and she recognized the voice. It was Jesus. She was
mute with shock. She made as if to grab hold of him, but he pulled back.
Don’t hold on to me, he said. Just tell the others.
She ran back to the house where the men were hidden. He’s alive, she shouted. He’s alive.
from the New Testament
Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher