Picturing the Magdalene

How Artists Imagine the Apostle to the Apostles

No figure in the Christian pantheon except Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist has inspired, provoked, or confounded the imagination of painters more than the Magdalene.

The claims, speculations, and traditions that have been “hung” on Mary Magdalene often resemble in thickness and length the locks of hair that cover her body like a raccoon coat in certain medieval and early Renaissance representations. It has been said that she was once a rich woman. It has been said that she was a prostitute. It has been said that she is the same person as Mary of Bethany, that she bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears and perfumed him with ointment, that she was married to Jesus. It has been said that she was the bride of John the Evangelist at the wedding in Cana and became so jealous when her groom ran off to follow Jesus that she became a whore. It has been said that she went to Marseilles in a boat and converted the French, that she lived in a cave for thirty years and was lifted to heaven by angels seven times a day. Where beneath all the heavy and patched-up lining is Mary Magdalene? To try to “uncover” her would be rude and impossible, but it may be possible, after all that has been said, to recover, with the help of Scripture and artists, a credible human being without so many of the dubious trappings.

She is identified by name eight times in the Gospels. Three evangelists name her as having been present at the Crucifixion (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40;...

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About the Author

Robert Kiely is professor emeritus of English at Harvard University. He is the author of Blessed & Beautiful: Picturing the Saints (Yale University Press).