I can never think about Mary Magdalene without thinking about these images by Georges La Tour.
I love La Tour’s work because of his use of light and shadow. Word is, he was a rather unpleasant character–as artists can be–but his religious paintings are awe inspiring. (I do tend to confuse him in my head with Caravaggio–they both fit in the light & shadow category.) Anyway, enough about La Tour.
His two works of Mary Magdalene that I’ve included here come with some of the standard features that relate to her iconography. Not much is known about St Mary and Church Tradition–never one to leave an amusing story uncreated–filled in with a vengeance. All four gospels tell us that she was at the crucifixion and that she was a witness of the Empty Tomb–John tells us she saw more as well… Thus, she was an important part of the Jesus Movement. Luke tells us that she was one of the financial supporters along with several other women and that Jesus cast seven demons out of her. That’s where the biblical witness ends.
Church Tradition picks up there, of course. She gets associated with the woman in Mark & Matthew who anoints Jesus with costly perfume and wipes his feet with her hair shortly before the Last Supper and therefore also with the woman in Luke’s (displaced) version who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair. One of the common features in pictures of Mary, then, is a jar of ointment as in Caravaggio’s Magdalene. Then some connect her with the woman in John 8. Sometimes she also gets to be Mary of Mary and Martha fame and the sister of Lazarus. Then there’s the whole red-headed prostitute bit; I have no idea where that came from. The text certainly doesn’t tell us. The Dan Brown crowd…we won’t even go there.
The point of all of this stuff in the Tradition–most of which is down-right slanderous–is to portray St Mary Magdalene as the archetypal penitent. She is the one who has lived a wild, dissolute, sinful life particularly involving lusts of the flesh. Her portraiture, then, represents penitence that rejects the gauds and baubles of this world in favor of eternal life, chastity, and purity. Yes, there’s a certain stream of asceticism here that can be anti-creation and that can be taken to unhealthy extremes. On the other hand, there’s also an asceticism in here that speaks to a shallow consumer culture goaded to ever-incerasing, ever-destructive acquistion through advertisements glorifying lusts of all fashions.
A few things to note about the pictures other than appreaciating their sheer beauty. In both, Mary holds a skull. This was a standard late medieval/renaissance convention harkening back to Benedict’s advice: Keep death daily before your eyes. The presence of the skull, in the hand, on the desk or–as in this case–in the lap, is a stark reminder of human mortality. We die. All of us. Life becomes more precious and more important and what we do with our life becomes more important in the face of Death (…or sister Death
for Sandman afficianados). Temporary pleasures versus eternal habitation… The rejection of worldly iniquity is shown by the scattered jewelry. Typically it’s on the floor showing that it has been rejected and cast away–La Tour puts some on the desk so we can see it.
So on this feast of St Mary, we can celebrate not only a sister of the faith who played an integral part in the early days, who served as the apostle to the Apostles–telling them of the resurrection before they even knew–and who was evidently a close and precious companion of Our Lord but also ponder the place of penitence in the midst of a shllow gaudy world that throws up amusements and entertainments rather than wrestle with the stark realities and hard edges of life. Mary calls us away from addiction to an opiate culture and to the reality of the Light which the darkness cannot overcome.
The pictures are from The Web Gallery of Art which I discovered in my internship days. My senior pastor told me I had to do PowerPoint sermons…so I did. But let’s be subversive, people–I got all of my pictures off of this site. If people have to look at something while you talk, make it the classics that have nourished Christians for centuries not freakin’ clip art.