|“Magdalen with the Smoking Flame”|
Georges de La Tour.
c. 1640 (Louvre, Paris)
There are places most folks would rather avoid. Today we are going there.
Holy Scripture doesn’t fill in all the blanks surrounding Mary of Magdala, but of one thing we are sure: Before Jesus Christ came along, she was messed up – big time. Artistic depictions of her seem to underscore this.
Mary Magdalene comes to readers of Holy Scripture as a sort of enigma. We meet her as a person made well, and for some reason we can‘t leave well enough alone. She is often mentioned as a follower of Christ and is included with women who show up during key events in the life of Christ – especially Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. She is one of the first to experience the reality of Christ‘s resurrection, but never mind that. We want to know her back story. The old Adam in us wants to know all her dirty, little secrets.
|”Saint Mary Magdalene”|
attributed to Gregor Erhart.
c. 1515-20 (Louvre, Paris)
Luke’s Gospel simply tells us that seven demons were driven out of her. As if one wasn't enough.
We don‘t exactly know what effect the demons had on her, but a stigma seems to have followed her long after Mary was set free from them. Western tradition makes her synonymous with the sinful woman, and the presumption is that she was either a prostitute or “loose.” Labels like those are hard to rub off.
"If this [Jesus] were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner." There is plenty to read between the Pharisee’s thoughts. Or is there?
Perhaps Mary’s troubled past is found in a different direction. At least one theory puts her in a place that would have given her a similar stigma – mental illness.
I’ve known a few folks who have dealt with emotional issues – some of them profound. Maybe you know of others in the same boat. Depression. Anxiety. Coping is their life, and sometimes that much is accomplished only through diet, exercise, counseling and medication. Sometimes even that doesn’t work. Through inherited genes or traumatic experience, the mind becomes tormented. Emotions are given a hair trigger. Fear is ever present. Sleep does not come. Obsessions build, as do compulsions. Moods swing uncontrollably. Heavy emotions won’t move at all. Sometimes the mind is so tightly wound that it can’t function. And the problems won’t leave. Perhaps Mary of Magdala suffered from a host of mental ailments. My own brother finally succumbed to seemingly bottomless despair, so I fully know what “it” can do. Demons, indeed.
Cario Crivelli. c. 1480
Mary Magdalene shows up frequently in sacred art. While artistic interpretations fill the spectrum, there is a common thread of spiritual heaviness and deep contrition that often accompanies depictions of her.
Mary’s questionable past apparently gave artists license to show something titillating, so she has been sometimes shown in various stages of undress. She is usually given handsome – if not alluring – features. And the hair. Loads of it. Piles of it. Mountains of it. Curled. Wavy. Occasionally red. Rarely is Mary’s hair completely covered. It swirls around Christ’s feet as a mop. It plays with the wind. It falls in unmanageable tresses that tease the viewer. Sigh. Artists.
One extreme example is the polychromed wooden sculpture by Gregor Erhart. This graceful, late-Gothic piece could be Lady Godiva’s twin, but not quite. A strange modesty is achieved by volumes of hair flowing far down her back and covering some of her front. It is a beautiful piece that foreshadows Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” but when taken in the light of Scripture, it seems overly indulgent and leaves an odd aftertaste.
40 years before Erhart sculpted his version, Carlo Crivelli painted another that is fully clothed, but Mary’s gaze is one that could drill holes in a man’s skull. She holds an identifying jar of perfume, and is given an edgy nod to her supposed former life with a red gown and over-the-top coiffed hair.
Donatello. c. 1453-1455.
(Museo dell’Operra del Duomo, Florence)
On the other end of the spectrum is Donatello’s gaunt and ugly version of the “Penitent Magdalene” that is out of the same mold as images of St. John the Baptizer, complete with a rough tunic that, in reality, is comprised of her own matted hair. Mary’s features are angular and her attitude is one of deep contrition. Her hallowed eyes are hollow. She has the look of a horrified swamp creature that has just been bitten by a zombie. Sigh. Artists.
Depictions that land between these two extremes use more thoughtful poses, and lean toward the mental illness premise. They depict a woman who thinks deeply; who dwells perhaps too much; who broods and laments and is weighed down by things far out of her control. A skull is often in her hands, and her eyes are ... elsewhere.
Georges de La Tour captures the heaviness of the saint’s reflection in his “Mary Magdalene with the Smoking Flame.” She is consumed by thought in a stare-down with a candle flame. In typical de La Tour fashion, the composition is swallowed by brooding shadows.
El Greco lightened things up in his 1580 version. Mary’s gaze is heavenward instead of inward, and the color of her scarlet clothing has been transferred to her relaxed tresses. Mary hasn’t parted with the skull, but her contrition is made gently theatrical in a hand-to-heart pose. This is but one of many examples which use her body language to identify the demonstrative saint.
|“Mary Magdalen in Penitence”|
El Greco. c. 1580
(Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary)
This candid side of Mary is most apparent in crucifixion tableaus. Hans Memling depicts her clinging to the cross beneath Jesus’ feet in the “Triptych of Jan Crabbe.” This common pose, while opposing Scripture’s description of the women watching from afar, foreshadows the account of Mary with the resurrected Christ, in which Jesus tells her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
Perhaps it is this expressive side of Mary that is so endearing to us – she is not at all afraid of the Lord. She is not afraid to touch him, and she is not afraid to pour out her tears – and her heart – at His feet. She clings to Him. Her thankfulness is deep and genuine and points to a great release from her past. We should be so demonstrative.
Mary Magdalene was no plaster saint, and her demons were very real. As with all the saints, her sinfulness hits uncomfortably close to home, and that is good. When remembering those who continue to suffer the presence of “other demons,” I go to an unlikely place – the Collect of Peace. When read with mental illness in mind, some of its phrases become stunningly appropriate:
|“Triptych of Jan Crabbe”|
Hans Memling. 1467-70.
(Museo Civico, Vicenza, Italy)
“O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey Thy commandments, and also that by Thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness, through the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
Passing time in rest and quietness through our Lord’s merits is, indeed, enough to ease any troubled mind.