The Temptation of Saint Mary Magdalen,
Painting by Johann Liss (1595-1631),
Painted circa 1626,
Oil on canvas
© The Metropolitan Museum, New York
Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene
It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb and came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved. ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb’ she said ‘and we don’t know where they have put him.’
Meanwhile Mary stayed outside near the tomb, weeping. Then, still weeping, she stooped to look inside, and saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head, the other at the feet. They said, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away’ she replied ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ As she said this she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, though she did not recognise him. Jesus said, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him.’ Jesus said, ‘Mary!’ She knew him then and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbuni!’ – which means Master. Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go and find the brothers, and tell them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ So Mary of Magdala went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that he had said these things to her.
Reflection on the painting
Today we celebrate the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. It is considered one of the most mystical of feasts within the Catholic Church as it is said that of all the songs of the saints, that of Mary Magdalene is the sweetest and strongest because her love was so great. She came a long way though. Mary from Magadala (a small fishing town on the Sea of Galilee) was a woman who heard Jesus speak of the mercy and forgiveness of God and her encounter with Jesus changed her life completely.
Mary’s early life, before her conversion, is not recorded in the Scriptures. We know little of her before she met Jesus. This has led to writers and artists speculating over the centuries and portraying her unjustly as a sexually immoral person in western Christianity. Our painting by German artist Johann Liss from 1626 is a good example of such an ‘exaggerated’ portrayal of Mary Magdalen. He depicts Mary at the very moment she is rejecting the world’s riches (represented by a turbaned figure holding silver objects), in favour of an angel who bears the palm of victory. Her back-tilted head, half-closed eyes, and partially exposed breasts convey an almost shocking eroticism.
This painting would not be a personal favourite of mine of how Mary Magdalen is portrayed. Yet, it is important to look at all types of depictions of our saint throughout art history. However, the sculpture by Antonio Canova, titled ‘Repentant Mary Magdalene’ is probably one of my favourite portrayals of Mary (see https://christian.art/daily-gospel-reading/john-20-1-211-18-2020/ ).
On 3 June 2016, the Holy See raised the liturgical rank of the Memorial of Saint Mary Magdalene to a Feast, with the date remaining on July 22.
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Describing her as the Apostle to the Apostles is no overstatement.
I was so moved by this reading and the emotions depicted in it, that I wanted to keep reading it. A few observations; 1) Jesus and the angels echo eachother with the same words: (“Woman…”) and then Mary continues talking without being perturbed by these appearances of angels which reveals how human, angels can look.
2) Mary makes assumptions that portray how at that point, her faith is dependant on Jesus in His human form (“They have taken my Lord away”) and then her faith rises to new levels when Jesus reveals a new glory.
Her relationship with Him is very personal. She recognised his voice and when He calls her by her name she recognised Him.
She is the first of the living to witness the resurrection and the first to testify.
‘ Lord , give us a fresh revelation and encounter with you that makes us want to run and tell others without reservations ‘.
This is possibly only the second time in 20 years of being a Christian that I’ve heard said that we don’t really know Mary’s history & the assumptions made about her, but it’s good to see 2 different perspectives from 2 different artists ??,
Our past , however good or sinful , is the person we are today, a work of art in progress which depicts all aspects of ourselves. It means we can never really forgot our sins however much we want to believe that once confessed God throws our sins in the pool of forgetfulness and puts up a sign ‘no fishing’
There was another Canova sculpture of the Magdalene in a Christie’s auction this month. Her story is a rich one for artists to work on and embellish. As Patrick says, in the West all sorts of lubricious side stories have been added on to the Bible narrative.
Historic misogyny – the fallen woman etc.
Saint Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the Resurrected Jesus. I wonder why the artist chose to portray her in such a misogynistic way.