By Costanza Beltrami

Today, 22 July, is the feast day of St Mary Magdalene, one of Christianity’s most important saints. Mentioned in all the canonical Gospels as a close follower of Jesus, Mary is nevertheless a mysterious figure. Her name suggest that she originated from Magdala Tarichaea, an historical town on the sea of Galilee, and may also indicate that she was not married, as it does not include her husband’s name.

On the contrary, the best-known facts of the Magdalene’s life — her sinful life as a prostitute and her momentous conversion to a saintly life — are not confirmed by the Bible’s text. For example, Jesus’ well-known maxim “let him that is without sin cast the first stone,” traditionally associated with the Magdalene, actually only refers to an unnamed “woman caught in adultery” (John 8:2–11). Along the centuries, the figure of the Magdalene became intertwined and confused with that of other female disciples and Biblical Marys.

Later events of this saint’s life, for example her presence at the Crucifixion and her face-to-face encounterwith Jesus shortly after the Resurrection, have a solid scriptural basis.

Combining alluring sensuality, orthodox repentance and encouraging redemption, the letter and the legend of Mary Magdalene have been represented in countless variations by Italian artists.

Further reading: Faith, Gender and the Senses in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art: Interpreting the Noli me tangere and Doubting Thomas by Erin E. Benay and IAS Member Lisa M. Rafanelli.

Master of the Palazzo Venezia Madonna, St Mary Magdalene, c. 1350, egg tempera on wood, 60 x 35 cm, National Gallery, London. Photo: Web Gallery of Art. 

Donatello, St Mary Magdalene, c. 1457, polychrome wood, height 188 cm,
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Taddeo Crivelli, St Mary Magdalene Penitent, c. 1469, manuscript (Ms Ludwig IX 13), J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Agnolo di Polo, Mary Magdalene, c. 1495, gilt and painted terracotta, height 156 cm, private collection. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Titian, St Mary Magdalene, c. 1532, oil on wood, 84 x 69 cm, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Caravaggio, Mary Magdalene, 1596-97, oil on canvas, 123 x 99 cm, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Domenico Fetti, The Repentant St Mary Magdalene, 1617-21, oil on canvas, 98 x 78,5 cm, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Francesco del Cairo, Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy,c. 1650, oil on canvas, 58 x 47 cm, private collection. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

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2 thoughts on “Today, 22 July, is the feast day of St Mary Magdalene, one of Christianity’s most important saints.

  1. the pictures with her breasts exposed are too sexual where is the modesty? why print them ?

  2. Dear Lawrence,

    Printing the pictures of St Mary Magdalene with her breasts exposed shows how renderings of the saint developed over time. It is thought that, at some point in the past, the stories of two biblical Marys were conflated – those of Mary Magdalene and those relating to Mary of Egypt. The latter was a hermit who lived in the desert and when her clothes wore out, they fell off and left her naked. Accordingly, Mary Magdalene is often represented contemplating her sinful life as a naked or semi-clothed hermit.

    Should our writers not include these evolved representations of St Mary Magdalene within their articles and blogs, they would be ignoring the historiography of representations within this genre and in turn, would be doing our readership a disservice.

    All best wishes,

    Italian Art Society Blog Editor

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