Mary Magdalene, Redux

I kept thinking about Mary Magdalene today. I had a hard time finding an appropriate portrait of her to include in the post I wrote last night, Titiaan, Mary Magdalene (1565)and I got to thinking today that perhaps she hasn’t been very well represented over the years. She is often depicted in low-cut dresses, or in other ways linked to the idea of being a woman of loose morals. This is no doubt on account of her being associated with the woman of ill repute in Luke 7:36-50 who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears – of whom Jesus said she was forgiven because she loved much.

This association is probably based on two textual coincidences: the first being that immediately Neer, Mary Magdalene (1691)following the story of the forgiven sinful woman, Luke records that several women from Galilee followed Jesus as he journeyed from town to town, with Mary Magdalene the first named among them; the second (and perhaps more influential) being that John records a woman named Mary similarly anointing and drying the feet of Jesus (Jn 12:1-8).

Benson, Mary Magdalen, PenitentHowever, Luke only tells us that Mary had been freed from seven demons. And the Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet in John did so in Bethany, in the house of Lazarus and his sister Martha, and was undoubtedly their sister Mary, not Mary of Magdala. All the same, Mary Magdalene is almost always presented in art as a penitent (or in some guises perhaps semi-penitent!) woman, because of that association.

Furthermore, in the depictions of the post-resurrection appearance Holbein, Noli me Tangereto Mary in John 20:11-18 – the scenes typically known by the Latin of Jesus’ response to Mary’s response to him, Noli me tangere, Jesus is often seen trying to keep Mary away from him, which strikes me as an overly narrow reading of a difficult text, and one that is not easy to harmonize with the other Gospel post-resurrection scenes that depict others touching Jesus (including the encounter of Jesus with Thomas in the very same chapter of John, and Mary herself embracing his feet in homage in Mt 28:9).

What is missing are depictions of a strong, Ducco, Noli me Tangere (~1310)devoted, loyal woman of character, as Mary surely was. She not only followed him throughout his ministry, she was one of the very few who stood by him right until the hour of his death on the cross. And even then, she stayed on. Her dedication to the Lord is unparalleled in Scripture, and the Risen Christ appeared first to her, among all the inhabitants of the earth.

That raises an even bigger question about the body of art we have depicting this woman: Where is the exhilarating joy of that moment on Easter morning when he called her “out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1Pt 2:9)? The Noli me tangere depictions I’ve seen completely fail to do justice to the scene, as far as I’m concerned. Has no artist ever tried to capture the ecstasy and complete satisfaction that woman must have felt at that moment?

  • Hi John,

    I’m 40-something with four daughters myself!

    This is the first time I’ve visited your new blog. Congratulations–you’re off to a great start.

    I also read that you’re considering graduate study at Franciscan University. The headquarters of Catholics United for the Faith is less than a mile from the university, so I hope you stop by and introduce yourself to our staff when you get to town.

    In this particular post I think you make a good point regarding the famous “Nolo me tangere” images. I’ve never thought of it that way.

    Lastly, I realize that I’m in a minority camp these days on this point, but I’m of the opinion, in keeping with the Church’s liturgical tradition as well as legitimate biblical scholarship, that Mary Magdalene is indeed the repentant sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet as well as Mary of Bethany. See

  • John W Gillis

    Hi Leon,

    I’m delighted you found your way over – thank you for the kind words. I’ll be sure to stop by CUF when I’m in town.

    Interesting article you pointed me to. I hadn’t known the Gospel reading for July 22nd used to be Lk 7.36-50. Food for thought. I think Mary being named immediately after that passage looks like a bit of a Scriptural wink anyway, though I find it a bit more problematic to see Mary of Magdala as also being Mary of Bethany.

    No matter, my beef is really with the tendency (among artists) to portray her as less than honorable, when – as a disciple – she was undoubtedly transformed. In perusing the available art, I found myself thinking that the contemporary calumnies levied against Mary are not so original. I found several medieval depictions of Mary with Jesus that were dicey enough that I decided to exclude them from consideration, out of a concern for not wanting to provide any potential fuel for the fire.

    That she was a penitent is unquestionable – aren’t we all? We know that she was relieved of seven demons, and whatever such possession may have meant in practical terms, it couldn’t have been pretty. But given the fiercely courageous devotion she demonstrates for the Lord, can anyone doubt that she radiated the joy of knowing intimately God’s rich mercy? Whatever her past may have been, her singleness or purity of devotion reveals a purity of heart that, in my mind, paints a picture of a woman of great spiritual nobility (not one forever wallowing in her past).