In the common imagination, the person of Mary Magdalene does not have too flattering connotations. As saint, she is a patron of the religious orders for “fallen women” who sought redemption for their sins. To this day, the creators of popular culture most often use her character as the personification of a converted harlot who was brought back to the path of virtue by the love for Jesus of Nazareth. And it was not meant to be only spiritual love, but purely human, carnal.

Frederick Sandys, Mary Magdalene, ca. 1858-1860, Delaware Art Museum

Interestingly, the person of Mary Magdalene as we see her today, is a compilation of a characters named Maria appearing in the New Testament. One may venture the claim that it was made from the “mistake” of Pope Gregory the Great. In a homily from 591, he combined the Mary of Magdala, a disciple of Jesus (identified also with a woman from whom Christ expelled seven demons), the most frequently mentioned in Passion and Resurrection themes, Mary of Bethany, sister of Marta and Lazarus, and the harlot who anointed Christ’s feet during a feast at the Simon the Pharisee. Such a vision was questioned only with the appearance of the reform movements in the 16th century. Nevertheless, unequivocal identification of Magdalena with an adulteress continues to this day.

Johannes Vermeer, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, ca. 1654-1656,
National Galleries of Scotland

Who then is the Mary Magdalene visible in the painting from the Museum of Art in Philadelphia? She stands in the middle of the composition, with her right hand raised in a gesture of speech, left leaning on a horizontal piece of tree trunk. This is a puzzling construction – a thin trunk is wedged between two other trees – (it seems to me that) it does not have any practical application. It does not limit any transition, it does not build any support, its only function seems to be to create the impression of a pulpit, a separate place for the person explaining the Word of God. That kind of exposition of Mary Magdalene makes her a preacher, the one with humble and pure heart. This is to be confirmed by the whiteness of the fabric tied over her head and covering the golden brocade dress. Saint seems to speak directly to the souls of the listeners gathered around her. There are not only men among them, but also women and children who sit in the foreground, listening to Mary’s story. The child on the left sat on his mother’s dress, she gives him an apple, probably to occupy his attention for a bit. The gesture of reaching for fruit evokes associations with the figure of a small Jesus playing with an apple. It directs the viewer to read the scene in the Christian spirit, in case the figure of a teaching woman would knocked him out from such certainty.

Master of the Magdalene Legend, Saint Mary Magdalene Preaching, ca. 1500-1520, Philadelphia Museum of Art (right wing of dismantled altarpiece)

The cult of Saint Mary Magdalene as an apostle developed among others in the territories of today’s France. From the thirteenth century she was presented also as a preacher who contributed to the Christianization of Gaul. The basis for such a reading was provided by the most popular in the Middle Ages source of knowledge about the lives of saints – “The Golden legend” by Jacob de Voragine. He described the life of Mary Magdalene after being forced to leave Jerusalem. She was to sail to Marseilles, where she converted the pagan Gauls to Christianity. Afterwards she spent her last thirty years in the hermitage in Saint-Baume in Provence, living in asceticism and repenting of her sinful youth. She is still worshiped as a preacher by the Dominican Order, that has chosen her as the second – next to Saint Dominic – patron.

Master of the Magdalene Legend, Resurection of Lasarus, ca. 1515-1520, Statens Museum for Kunst, Kopenhaga (central piece of dismantled altarpiece )

The painting from Philadelphia is part of a larger altar dedicated to the saint, its fragments are now dispersed between the collections of various museums. The painted story was devoted to the life of Mary Magdalene – with scenes both in which she accompanied Jesus (look at image above) and her independent adventures. The author of the iconographic program (that is set of topics to be illustrated) was inspired by the already mentioned “Golden legend”. In the background behind the preacher Magdalene, just above her head, there is a cave in which rests the woman’s body and a grassy cape on which the naked child runs towards the passing ship. It is a reference to the story of the miraculous intercession of Saint in the family life of one of the Burgundian princes. Thanks to the prayers of Mary Magdalene, his wife was not only to become pregnant, but also to survive the naval catastrophe and be found with her child after many months of separation from her husband.

Master of the Magdalene Legend, Saint Mary Magdalene Preaching, ca. 1500-1520, Philadelphia Museum of Art (detail)

Despite the incredible popularity of Mary Magdalene as a saint, showing her as a preacher is quite rare. Therefore I am very happy to know about this paintings and I thank one of the Readers for drawing my attention to it.

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