Mary Magdalene, a prominent figure in the New Testament, has captivated the imaginations of countless individuals throughout history. Her significance, however, has changed with time and this is specially clear through art, with a particular focus on renaissance and baroque art.
In the gospels, especially the one of John, Mary Magdalene has a prominent role not only while Jesus was alive but specially during his resurrection, when Mary was the first to see Jesus and the angels and was charged with the important duty to spread Jesus’ words about his ascendence to Heaven. Even though Mary Magdalene was portrayed in the bible as an apostle of Jesus, early works of art in the renaissance show no sign of her role as an important follower. Instead, in the early 1500, important painters such as Jan Van Scorel depicted her as a seductive, repentant woman, and yet art works reflecting her important work as a apostle who was dedicated and even a provided for Jesus with her own resources and money cannot be found. As Eveline so smoothly explains, this is only one example of how the role of Mary Magdalene was erased.
How it all changed
In the 1500s the narrative suddenly changed. The idea that Mary Magdalene was a rightful follower who was well established in society and decided to follow Jesus, and who, in return, was immensely loved by him transformed into the story of a repented prostitute who was so terribly ashamed of her sins that became religious and an honest follower of Jesus so she could cleanse herself. In fact, in most of the paintings depicting her in the 1500 she was placed in the feet of Jesus. The change of the story is rarely as clear as it is comparing Donatello’s Mary Magdalene sculpture; a wooden statue of a woman living in the dessert, covered in some kind of fabric and taken care of by the Lord himself, and the semi naked, oil painting of Mary Magdalene by Titian in the renaissance. In the first one we see a woman who is committed to Jesus, rather old and not particularly beautiful she is not cursed by vanity. In the second we see a woman who is very sensual and whose beauty was represented by her bare breasts and her long hair.
Mary Magdalene: a mother of life
By the 1600, the image of Mary Magdalene as a beautiful, sensual sinner who transforms and is accepted by God becomes a narrative that is beloved by not only artists but also town people who were mortified by their own imperfections and were inspired by this version of Mary Magdalene that uses her own flaws as vulnerable confessions for God. Indeed, this idea was used for a simple purpose: to teach people that God forgives you even if you have sinned and that beauty can and does have a higher purpose and is a gift that can and should be offered to God. Eventually this ended represented in a Mary Magdalene a very simple, every day woman. Caravaggio, as Eveline explains through the webinar, is finally depicted as human. She is both religious, faithful and vane and humble.
In conclusion, Mary Magdalene has been depicted in different ways throughout history; from an important apostle and a leader in the early christian movement, then transformed into a repented prostitute who self pities and is desperate for the approval and forgiveness of God. Later she is converted into the image of beauty and faithfulness, a woman who knows that despite her sins, the Lord is forgiving and finally, she becomes human. Her latest depictions as a humble, troubled, complicated and yet also committed christian who is compromised to loving God are probably, the most honest ones. They are also the closest to most women today, not simplifies versions of femininity, but complex characters.