St Mary Magdalene in Art

Fleur Dorrell looks at the many different ways Mary Magdalene has been depicted in art.

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By Fleur Dorrell

In art, St Mary Magdalene has been depicted in as many different ways as she’s been described in the New Testament, which as we know is inconclusive with regards to her identity and role. As there are several Marys mentioned in the Gospels, there are, therefore, a number of devices which have been used to portray such a complex personality.

Through art we see her predominantly as: an adulteress; a penitent sinner; the woman for whom Jesus casts out seven demons; with Martha and Lazarus; as a loving disciple washing Jesus’ feet; with the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross and Jesus’ deposition from the cross; and as the first person to see Jesus risen from the dead. The saint herself is usually depicted as young and beautiful, with long hair that flows loosely over her shoulders. By far the saint’s most common attribute is the alabaster jar from which she anointed Jesus. The jar is always small enough to be held in her hand.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, there was a fashion for highly emotional images of Jesus’ death, to cultivate devotion to him by being aligned with Christ in his suffering. The figure of a distraught Mary Magdalene became a popular way of intensifying the sense of grief in these scenes. From the 16th century onwards, artists employed other ways to explore the emotional values of the crucifixion, and Mary Magdalene became less demonstrative in her grief. And we see other symbols associated with her life in many paintings. These are the customary emblems of the contemplative life: a book, a crucifix, a scourge, a skull, and her eyes fixed either on heaven or on the crucifix itself. There is one sculpture however, that particularly challenges Mary Magdalene’s conventional aesthetics, by showing her alleged spiritual journey through the idea of ageing and renewal, which was carved by Donatello in the 15th century.

Penitent Magdalene, Donatello, c. 1453-1455, White poplar wood sculpture
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Source: Wikimedia Commons

In this sculpture, realism is everything. Commissioned for the Baptistery in Florence, Donatello’s Magdalene is shockingly haggard and wizened. Compared with most depictions as a siren and in her prime, this version emphasises a life lived fully and for which her infamous looks have been stolen through old age. In Mary Magdalene’s open mouth, she has teeth missing; and she is wrinkled and gaunt. Her clothes are rags as she stands humbly and barefoot. Donatello was suffering from a severe illness when he carved this sculpture and it is feasible that this illness influenced his portrayal of Mary Magdalene’s mortality here. But look more closely, and you will see that her hands present a very different perspective on this woman. These are praying hands, and the fingers are young and beautiful. These hands have been renewed through a life centred on Christ. These are the hands of conversion as they offer their palms in search of forgiveness and love.

Mary Magdalene, Perugino, c. 1500, Oil on panel, Galleria Palatina, Florence, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Perugino’s Renaissance-style Mary Magdalene is his least known painting. Unlike so many Mary Magdalenes, this woman has no obvious attributes but it’s simplicity increases its tenderness. Just look at those delicate hands, her elegant nose and pretty mouth. On the top of the braiding on her fashionable dress we see her name written on the fabric. And the dress contains both green and red materials to represent love and penitence. Perugino used his wife as the model and she was also a model for some of Raphael’s madonnas with her beautiful complexion. Here we see Mary Magdalene as reflective, and she has much to ponder as a friend of Jesus. She is both knowing and innocent – this contradiction will shape her status around the world, and her choice to follow Christ forever.

Martha and Mary Magdalene, Caravaggio, c.1598, Oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The painting shows the two sisters Martha and Mary (Magdalene). This is Caravaggio’s interpretation of who Mary Magdalene was, he sees her as Martha’s sister whereas most scholars believe that Martha was not related to Mary Magdalene. Unlike her usual role of being busy, Martha is in the act of persuading Mary to leave her life of pleasure for a life of virtue in Christ. Here we see Martha’s face in shadow as she leans forward, passionately arguing with her sister. This heightened drama is typical of Caravaggio and his skill in both using chiarascuro (light/dark contrasts) to intensify the story, and in his skill in re-creating a point of profound spiritual awakening. Mary Magdalene is listening to her sister’s proposal as she twirls an orange blossom (a symbol of purity) between her fingers. With her left hand she holds a mirror, reflecting the vanity she will relinquish. The power of this image lies in Mary’s face, caught at the exact moment when her conversion begins. She is illuminated now, both literally and spiritually, while her sister’s mouth opens in surprise at the rapidity of this change. Mary is both sensuous and holy. Her curvaceous body is offered to the viewer, and yet, in luxuriant red and green symbolic clothes, her transformation takes place right here. The brown table in front of the sisters displays three objects, the Venetian mirror, an ivory comb and a Venetian dish with a sponge. This dish is made of alabaster.

The Penitent Magdalen, Georges de la Tour, c. 1640, Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York, Source: metmuseum.org

This rendition of Mary Magdalene is set against candlelight and shadow in the Caravaggio-style that La Tour so admired. With geometric forms, and meditative mood, this painting shows us the simplicity of the call to faith. The atmosphere of this painting is so quiet that we, like Mary Magdalene, are invited to pause for prayer. Contemplation of a life lived with, and without Christ, is a lot to take in for any of us. It deserves as much time as it takes us all to follow this path. Mary Magdalene is shown once again with a mirror, symbol of vanity; a skull, an emblem of mortality; and a candle that may symbolise her spiritual enlightenment – that what she now sees comes from the heart, and not just her eyes. Mary Magdalene is sitting at a small desk, not so much as a student but as a disciple. She is penitent at the mirror, feeling remorse for her sins and praying for forgiveness. The mirror as it examines her reflection, further reveals the candle’s flame that burns in front of it, signifying the peace that comes from following God. This candle is the only source of light in this painting. By illuminating Mary’s upper body, face, and wonderful creamy shirt, while keeping her red robe below in shadow, the artist captures the journey of light, and thus the journey from redemption to holiness. La Tour painted the subject of Mary Magdalene four times. This story was greatly encouraged by the Catholic Church, which during the Counter Reformation emphasised penance and absolution in contrast to the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination.

Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection, Alexander Ivanov, 1835, Oil on canvas, The State Russian Museum, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The composition of this picture, although reversed, is very similar to the famous Titian version of this story in the National Gallery, London – Noli Me Tangere. Yet it differs in its simplicity using the light of Christ as it falls on Mary Magdalene both to highlight their relationship, and to stress that this scene took place in the early morning dark. Ivanov has painted the two figures as if they were almost sculptural with their tonal range and fixed positions. The figure of Christ is created in perfect proportions, the folds of his pearly-white robe are elegantly crafted. In contrast, Mary Magdalene has a fiery red dress so that by this distinction, the artist reveals the difference of the spheres in which the human and the divine reside. Mary Magdalene is balancing on one foot and knee, with both her hands extending towards Jesus. Christ restrains the strong spiritual impulse of his female disciple with a calm and clear gesture. Jesus loved Mary Magdalene but he has more work to do. With one hand he acknowledges her devotion, and with the other, he invites her to witness to his resurrection after he has left.

Mary Magdalene, Frederick Sandys, c. 1858-60, Oil on panel, Delaware Art Museum, Delaware, Source: Wikimedia Commons

This picture of Mary Magdalene is deliciously sensual in its use of colour and form but is inaccurate for a Middle-Eastern woman with her pale, European features. Mary Magdalene is depicted in front of a patterned forest-green damask not unlike a William Morris design; and Sandys, being associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, has deployed many of this movement’s hallmarks. This Mary Magdalene is young with free-flowing flame-red hair which was typical of the Pre-Raphaelite models but could also indicate the opposite of holiness. Holiness in women was more often conveyed through being demure, poised with the Bible or prayer book in hand, and with hair neatly tied up. This gorgeous woman has peach cheeks and rosy lips as she clasps an alabaster ointment cup to herself. This Magdalene is not naive but reflective. Passionate and alive to all that is offered to her. She is pondering her life and her future; and weighing up the path she must tread. Her only certainty is in the decision she must take. With such a far away gaze we are merely onlookers to this woman’s thoughts, but as apostle to the apostles, we will later celebrate her faith and her rightful place in our canon of saints.


Fleur Dorrell is Catholic Scripture Engagement Manager for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and Bible Society.