Saint Mary Magdalene: The Iconography

In Marseille, Gaul, the natal day of St. Mary Magdalene, from whom the Lord drove out seven demons, and who merited to be the first to see the Savior risen from the dead — Roman Martyrology for July 22.

A tradition at least as old as the 6th century holds that the Mary Magdalene of the Crucifixion and Resurrection narratives, "out of whom seven devils were gone forth" (Luke 8:2), was the same person as Mary of Bethany, who entertained Jesus in her home, was at the resurrection of Lazarus, and anointed Jesus' feet in the week before his last Passover (image). The tradition holds further that she was also the same person as the "sinful woman" who anointed Jesus' feet with an alabaster jar of oil.1 Until the modern period all artists accepted this tradition, so in discussing the iconography we shall do the same.

For Mary Magdalene's part in the story of her brother's resurrection, see the page for St. Lazarus. For the episode when Jesus visited her and Martha in their home, see the page for St. Martha. For her anointing of Jesus' feet in the week before Passover, see the page for the Last Supper

MARY MAGDALENE AT THE CRUCIFIXION

A 6th-century manuscript illumination of the Crucifixion includes the three women followers named in Matthew 27:56, one of whom is Mary Magdalene. But she is not individualized, and until the late middle ages she appears only infrequently in Crucifixions. However, in the 14th and 15th centuries there was a vogue for highly emotional images of Jesus' death, and the figure of a distraught Mary Magdalene became a favorite way of intensifying the sense of grief in the scene. In some images she raises her arms to Heaven in anguish (example); in others, she clings desperately to the foot of the cross (example).

As the 16th century proceeds and artists find other ways to explore the emotional values of the Crucifixion, Mary Magdalene is less demonstrative in her grief (example) and also less likely to be included in the scene at all. (See the page on the Crucifixion.)

AT THE RESURRECTION

The 6th-century illumination mentioned above also has two scenes from the Resurrection narratives: the visit of Mary Magdalene and the other women to the tomb, and the Magdalene's encounter with Jesus in the garden, where he asks not to be touched (as in the second image at right). Both scenes came to be very common subjects in the art. For examples, see the page on the Resurrection.

HER LIFE AS A CONTEMPLATIVE

According to the Golden Legend, Mary Magdalene was expelled from the Holy Land by "miscreants" who put her into a rudderless boat with her brother and sister and Maximin, her spiritual adviser. Eventually they arrived in Marseille (image), where Mary Magdalene began to preach the faith with eloquence and to great effect. Then she decided to retire to "a right sharp desert" for a life of prayer and contemplation. At each canonical hour the angels came and lifted her up in the air, where she could hear "the glorious song of the heavenly companies" (images by Giotto and Giordano). This was all the nourishment she required for thirty years.

Modern scholars agree with the 12th-century writer who dismissed the account of Mary Magdalene's life in the desert as a mere borrowing from the life of St. Mary of Egypt, and indeed even Giotto got the two Marys confused in his fresco of Zosimus and the Magdalene (Jansen, 65-66).

When it was time for her to die she sent word to Maximin, who called the clergy together in his church. The angels carried her there, and she received communion for the last time, a popular scene in medieval art (example).

Images of the Magdalene in her cell were highly popular from the 16th century through the 18th. Like the third picture at right, they usually include the customary emblems of the contemplative life: a book, a crucifix, a scourge, a skull, and eyes fixed either on Heaven or on the crucifix. Like the earlier images of extravagant sorrow at the foot of the cross, they often seem to assume that the extreme passion that once led Mary Magdalene to be a "sinner" continues to characterize her in her reformation. Her clothing is often scanty (example) and her expression evidences a more intense experience of the divine (example) than, for example, pictures of St. Jerome in similar circumstances.

Or she is seen in her cell experiencing an ecstatic vision of the cross, which is carried to her by angels (one example from the 17th century, another from the 18th). A painting of the Pietà from the 15th century makes an anticipatory reference to this image type.

PORTRAITS

The cross of these ecstatic visions is sometimes used as an attribute (example), but by far the saint's most common attribute is the alabaster jar from which she anointed Jesus. It is always of a size to be held in one's hand, usually with a top that tapers to a finial or cross and sometimes supported by a round "foot" (example). (Tintoretto's portrait of the Magdalene in her cell, however, gives her a pair of open-top blackware jars.)

The saint herself is usually depicted as young and beautiful, with long, blond hair that flows loosely over her shoulders, as in the first and third pictures at right. (One exception: a gaunt, tired-looking Magdalene in this painting in Rome).

In an unusual painting that I found in an obscure corner of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in 2007, a female figure with flowing blond hair points to the words magistra apostolorum in a book held by St. Barnabas. The phrase means "(female) teacher of the Apostles." It normally refers to the Virgin Mary, but nevertheless the figure in the painting may be St. Mary Magdalene, who was frequently praised by writers of the 12th and later centuries as Apostola Apostolorum, "Apostle (female) of the Apostles" (Jansen, 57-97, (Head, 662). See my page for the painting. In 2010, however, a reader wrote me that now the painting is nowhere to be found in the church.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-01-17, 2017-02-21.

HOME PAGE


A panel in Vivarini's Polyptych of the Virgin and Child, 1449 (See description page)


Duccio di Buoninsegna, Noli me tangere, 1308-1311 (See description page)


This 18th-century paint­ing puts the saint out­side the en­trance to her cell (on the left) but with all the ob­jects typ­ical of the con­tem­pla­tive life.(See de­scrip­tion page)

MORE IMAGES

DATES

  • Feast day: July 22

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • Golden Legend #96: html or pdf
  • Also see the translated French texts in Head, 655-74.

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 See homily XXXIII in Gregory the Great's 6th-century Homiliae in Evangelia (Migne LXXVI, 1075-1312, Hurst 269-78). It is important to understand that Gregory's identification of the Magdalene as a repentant sinner is intended as praise. He contrasts her open-hearted acceptance of salvation with the Pharisee's arrogant presumptions, and he compares that arrogance to the airs put on by some contemporary clergymen. For Mary of Bethany see Luke 10:38-42, John 11:1-42, John 12:1-3. The unnamed woman with the jar of oil is in Luke 7:37-38, where Pharisees object that she is "a sinful woman" with whom Jesus should not associate, and in Matthew 26:6-7 and Mark 14:3-9, where bystanders object to the waste of costly oil.