St. Barnabas with a "Magistra Apostolorum"

Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva

I photographed this painting in 2007. In 2010 a reader informed me that it was no longer on view.

The legend in the upper right corner identifies SAN BARNABAS AP[OSTO]LUS, "St. Barnabas the Apostle." The book he is holding is open to the words MAGISTRA APOSTOLORVM . Latin Magistra is the feminine form of magister, "teacher" or "master." Apostolorum means "of the apostles." Rupert of Deutz used the phrase for the bride in the Song of Solomon, whom he understood allegorically as the Virgin Mary.1 The Church is also called mater et magistra ("mother and teacher") in two papal documents from the 11th century and one from the 20th.2

But could the female figure in this painting in fact represent the Virgin Mary? The latter does usually wear a blue mantle over a red robe as in this painting, but she is never shown bare-headed unless (a) the subject is the Annunciation or some earlier event in her life, or (b) her head is about to be crowned.

Usually an uncovered head of flowing hair identifies St. Mary Magdalene, but I have been unable to find any text that associates her with either St. Barnabas or the phrase magistra apostolorum. She is called an apostle in The Life of St. Godric, where she appears to Godric in a dream with the Virgin Mary, who calls her "a woman apostle among the apostles."3 And the Golden Legend says Christ made her the apostola apostolorum, "apostle of the apostles" by appearing to her first after his resurrection.4

Read more about St. Barnabas, St. Mary Magdalene, portraits of Mary, and the Church.

Photographed at the basilica by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

1 See Gittens.

2 The 11th-century documents are referenced in a note in a Wikipedia article. The 20th-century one is the encyclical Mater et Magistra (May 15, 1961).

3 Stouck, 423.

4 Ryan, 376. Graesse, 409.