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Mary Magdalene: A cultural history by Philip C. Almond; Mary Magdalene: A visual history by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona

06 April 2023

Nicholas Cranfield on how the resurrection’s first witness is depicted

THESE books examine Mary Magdalene largely through her representation in art, although the portrayals maintain an earlier confusion. Pope Gregory the Great, in a sermon preached at San Clemente in Rome on 14 September 591, conflated the three Maries of the biblical text (Mark 14.3-9; Matthew 26.6-13; John 12.1-8).

Professor Almond adroitly points out that, in the West, the enhanced status assigned to the Blessed Virgin Mary across the medieval period made her less accessible as a role model. Rather, the fallen woman redeemed became a woman for all seasons.

Eastern Christianity has carefully observed the differences with feast days on 18 March for Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, 21 March for the converted sinner, and 22 July for the spice-bearer (one of the Myrrhophores), the first witness to the resurrection.

Her cultus led to widespread claim for her relics; her body is to be found in the Lateran Rome, at Senigallia, Vézelay, St Maximin in Provence, and at Istanbul, brought from Ephesus to Constantinople. A virtual panoply of her arms exists across France and in Germany (Cologne has two), Sicily, and Venice. At Fécamp, St Hugh of Lincoln famously bit off one of her fingers for Chartreuse.

It is largely in the West that Mary Magdalene has become the darling of artists. As the sinful woman, she is present at an all-male supper club in the staggering 1891 painting by Jean Béraud (Musée d’Orsay) which indicts contemporary Parisian society. At the empty tomb, the encounter with the gardener (Noli me tangere) shows the fulness of her redemption. Titian, Fra Angelico, and Martin Schongauer come to mind.

Bridgeman CND 174177Jean Fouquet, The Suffering of the Saints: Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee from Hours of Étienne Chavelier, Ms. Fr. 71 Fol. 37 (1445: Musée Condé, Chantilly), which is reproduced in Diane Apostolos-Cappadona’s book

In her desert years of penance, she is portrayed naked, her abject body covered only by her unkempt hair. Donatello’s sculpture of her as a penitent (1453-55), which was probably commissioned for the Baptistery in Florence, uses the wood to emphasise her emaciated body, while, on the wings of the Valori altarpiece by Filippino Lippi (c.1498-1500), painted at the height of Florentine hysteria around the puritanical preaching of Savonarola, she is paired off with John the Baptiser (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence).

As a trustee of the National Gallery, Alan Bennett enjoyed the privilege of out-of-hours visits to the gallery. He wryly observed the need to invent women’s handbags when he was confronted by yet another Magdalen carrying her ointment jar.

As something of a “lush”, Mary in ecstasy has long fascinated collectors and artists alike. Christie’s auction house in January lost a claim to the proceeds from a 1707 painting by Adriaen van der Werff (1659-1722) which was stolen by the Nazis in Paris in 1942. It is as sensuous as the 1876 naked voluptuary painted by Jules Joseph Lefebvre and works that now make Artemisia Gentileschi so popular.

Apostolos-Cappadona is better served by her publisher in illustrations, fitting for the New York curator of the fascinating 2002 exhibition that she staged at the short-lived Gallery of the American Biblical Society in the heart of Manhattan. Cambridge allows Professor Almond many excursions, into the history of pilgrimages, relic-collecting, medieval Vitae, and much else.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.


Mary Magdalene: A cultural history
Philip C. Almond
CUP £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

Mary Magdalene: A visual history

Diane Apostolos-Cappadona
T&T Clark £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.19

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