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Mary Magdalene in art: Attributes of penitence

21 April 2023

Artistic portrayals of Mary Magdalene are full of spiritual symbolism, says Diane Apostolos-Cappadona


The Penitent Magdalene by Guido Reni (1575-1642)

The Penitent Magdalene by Guido Reni (1575-1642)

TRADITIONALLY in Christian art, saints were represented by identifiable attributes or symbols which delineated their “martyrdom” in the most fundamental sense of the term: that is, the witnessing of their faith. For example, Catherine of Alexandria (c.287-c.305) and Catherine of Siena (1347-80) are distinguished by their individual attributes: the spiked wheel, and the cross surmounted by a lily or a heart, respectively.

Controversies and debates about her identity aside, Mary Magdalene was recognisable by her fundamental attributes: an ointment jar, long flowing hair, tears, and her gestures and postures. These visual connectors reference the Magdalene as the woman who anointed Jesus of Nazareth — either his feet, his head, or his crucified body. She is the indispensable conduit between the Christian ritual action of healing and protection, and human frailty.

The Magdalene’s renowned jar is itself a symbol of metamorphosis. It transmogrifies into a diversity of shapes, including alabaster containers, elegant perfume bottles, clear glass carafes, and golden liturgical vessels. As the protector of these precious and consecrated anointing oils, her jar signifies the unction which cleanses, preserves, and seals the anointed from evil, disease, and sin.

When its classical mythological referents are commingled with its part in the scriptural anointment episodes, the jar connotes metanoia. Early Christians recognised the linguistic relationship between salvation and redemption through the anointing oils as the Hebrew messiah became the Greek christos, which translates as “the anointed one”.

When depicted as a beautiful perfume bottle, the Magdalene’s jar signifies both her former life of pleasure and a link to her Hebraic scriptural foretypes, Susanna and Bathsheba, whose luxurious flagons held fragrant bath oils. Just as the jar portends metanoia, unction, and metamorphosis, it serves as a reminder that at the very bottom of Pandora’s box lay Hope.

Pandora’s curiosity overwhelmed her restraint, so that she opened the “forbidden” box and released evil, disease, and suffering into the world. She shut the lid quickly enough, however, to retain Hope.


MARY MAGDALENE’s long-flowing hair refers to the part she plays as anointer and repentant adulteress. Hair in its condition, colour, and style was an emblem of physical, spiritual, and societal characteristics, especially in classical and early Christian culture.

AlamyMary Magdalene by Carlo Crivelli (d. 1494/95)

Hair typified energy and fertility; a full head of hair embodied joie de vivre, élan vital, and resolution to succeed. As the head signified the most spiritual part of the human body, being the closest to the heavens, hair on the head connoted spiritual energy. Healthy, abundant hair such as the Magdalene’s exemplified her spiritual development following on from her healing or conversion.

Hairstyles had significance in the classical world. Typically, young unmarried women allowed their abundant tresses to flow freely down their necks and over their shoulders in a style synonymous with that of the female personifications of sacred love. Proper married women covered their heads in public as both a sign of their social station and of the preservation of their “energy” for their husbands.

Courtesans braided their hair, piling it high atop their heads. They decorated these styles with bejewelled or floral ornaments alluding to the female personifications of profane love. If she embodied the “sinful” side of her complex persona, the Magdalene’s hair is elegantly coiffed and decorated with jewels, flowers, and ribbons. Her long flowing hair signifies the invocation to her as a “holy virgin” in the texts of the Early Church Fathers and in the Litany of the Saints.

Given its relation to the planet Venus, copper- or red-coloured hair implied a venereal character, and thereby was associated with sexuality. As the residents in the classical Mediterranean were predisposed to olive skin with dark hair and eyes, any person with fairer skin and hair tones was immediately noticeable.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Mary Magdalene was depicted with beautifully braided and arranged red hair to connote her fundamental lascivious nature before her healing or conversion.

Tears, especially the large pearl-shaped ones dripping slowly from her eyes, signified that Mary Magdalene had been granted the donum lacrimorum, “the gift of tears,” as espoused by the Church Fathers and the medieval mystics. Shed in repentance, the Magdalene’s tears symbolised her self-knowledge and recognition of her own finitude and guilt.

Her tears were the external expression of the spiritual action of the purification of the soul. Therefore, silent penitential tears — not the physical contortions of sobbing or hysteria — became a visual attribute of the Magdalene.

Other well-received depictions include the Magdalene engaged in contemplative penance. Her bodily posture and the attributes of skull, scourge, or crucifix, signify that she is lost in her thoughts about the transitory nature of human existence. She may be pictured deep in contemplation gazing into a mirror — not in reversion to her former narcissism, but rather in spiritual introspection. She was rendered as a dishevelled, haggard, and wan figure with a prayerful gesture denoting either penance or preparation for death.

During the medieval and Renaissance periods, she was the spiritual advocate of confraternities dedicated to the penitential discipline of self-flagellation, and of cloistered nuns devoted to the contemplative life of silent prayer. She is credited with many miracles, including spectacular cures, the liberation of prisoners, the raising of the dead, fertility, and successful childbirths.

Mary Magdalene has played multiple parts in Christian spirituality and devotions as the patroness of penitents and flagellants, vintners and coiffeurs, weavers and couturiers, perfumers as well as perfumiers and jewellers, nuns and monks, caregivers and healers.


Diane Apostolos-Cappadona is Professor Emerita of Religious Art and Cultural History and Haub Director in the Catholic Studies Program, Georgetown University, and the author of A Guide to Christian Art (2020). This is an edited extract from her Mary Magdalene: A visual history (Books, 6 April), published by T&T Clark at £17.99 (CT Bookshop £16.19); 978-0-567-70574-7.

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