Mary Magdalene is one of the most revered, enigmatic, and sometimes controversial figures of the Bible. Whether depicted as Jesus’ spiritual companion, friend, wife, unrequited love interest, mother figure, groupie, or some combination thereof, popular culture has found in her an irresistibly rich character. The Magdalene’s presence in art has been well established over time and continues to develop in new and interesting ways to this day.
How to Know Her: Mary Magdalene’s symbolic attributes derive through her identification with other female figures of the New Testament. Her hair, for example, usually depicted as long, wavy, and flowing, is used to distinguish her from other women and is drawn from the long-standing (but inaccurate) belief that she was the woman who wept at Christ’s feet and dried her tears with her hair before anointing him with expensive ointment (that woman is only identified by name in the Gospel of John, which ascribes her identity as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus). This story is also the reason that she is often depicted with a bottle of perfume.
Where to Find Her: Mary Magdalene is consistently found in crucifixion scenes, along with the Virgin, St. John, and the other women who were noted in the Gospels as having witnessed Jesus’ death. Her great love and devotion can usually be marked by her anguished position at the foot of the cross.
She is also featured in a subset of Resurrection scenes known as Noli Me Tangere, the
“Noli me Tangere”, 15th century
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (not on display)
Latin translation of the words Christ speaks to Mary Magdalene in John 20 – “Touch me not” – when she recognizes his risen form. Often she is attempting physical contact with Jesus, who stands triumphant, sometimes with a standard of victory, just out of her reach. (This scene provides a scriptural and artistic foil to the well-known scene of the risen Christ appearing to Doubting Thomas, with his wounds exposed for his disciple’s touch.)
Mary Magdalene is also often depicted as a penitent and a contemplative in the wilderness, a tradition derived from the popular medieval book of saints’ lives, The Golden Legend. The New Testament Gospels describe Mary Magdalene’s actions up until the Resurrection, but popular legend describes her later life of solitude in Gaul (modern-day France) where there is a large cult devotion to her still to this day.
Magdalene in Manhattan: One of the most stirring images of the Magdalene can be found in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This Georges La Tour masterpiece, whose
“The Penitent Magdalen”
Georges de la Tour
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
twin resides in the Louvre, is located in Gallery 620 of the European Paintings Wing. Here the saint is described as a penitent, surrounded by potent symbols of death and contemplation. The heavy chiaroscuro conveys the emotional weight of her contemplation.
There are also impressive medieval sculptures of the saint at both The Met and its uptown site, The Cloisters.
“Mary Magdalen at the Foot of the Cross”, ca. 1420-30
Follower of the Master of Rimini
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Thoroughly Modern Mary: Music – The mysterious allure of the Magdalene has resonated throughout Western culture for centuries and it still intrigues us today. In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Lady Gaga, when asked with whom she would have dinner of anyone living or dead, answered that she’d love to grab sushi with Mary Magdalene. She in fact devoted an entire song on her last album to her (with a shout out to Michelangelo) and, pulling from those recognizable artistic traditions, dressed up as the saint in the controversial video for her song “Judas.”
Theatre – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar highlights the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Though there is no question of the Magdalene’s feelings in the show, the current production taking place on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theater depicts not just a woman perhaps in love, but an extremely faithful disciple. The 2012 retelling of the musical Passion includes Mary in every vital scene in which Jesus meets with his disciples. Not only does she hold his hand during his scourging, but she sits next to him at the Last Supper. The production underscores Mary’s importance to her Rabboni in an unmistakable – and refreshing – way.
Chilina Kennedy and Paul Nolan in “Jesus Christ Superstar”
Literature – There are many works, of both fiction and nonfiction, that explore the gaps in Mary Magdalene’s story. One of the most compelling of these stories is the 2003 novel Magdalene by Angela Hunt. Hunts tells the story of the Magdalene as a woman plagued by the need for revenge even as she walks in step with a uniquely merciful man. She successfully interweaves politics, family issues, and theology with a gripping narrative. Hunt makes the well-loved saint even more intriguing and, as each chapter unfolds, makes the reader ravenous for her beautiful, tragic, hopeful story.
MOBIA: Back in 2002, the Museum of Biblical Art’s previous incarnation, The Gallery at the American Bible Society, mounted an exhibition entitled “In Search of Mary Magdalene: Images and Traditions” that delved into the various roles ascribed to her historically and how those roles have been visually translated. This painting by Carlo Dolci (1616-1686), loaned by the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, depicts the Magdalene as a penitent with her hair unbound and her earnest eyes fixed towards heaven.
“The Penitent Magdalen”, c. 1670
Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College
- T.C. for MOBIA