Mary Magdalen, Saint

   A follower of Christ who became one of the great examples of the repentant sinner. Mary Magdalen's legend seems to be a conflation of various episodes from the lives of more than one woman. Prior to her acceptance of Christ, she was a prostitute. She gave up her sinful life when she and her sister Martha received the Lord in their home. While Martha was busy preparing dinner, Mary Magdalen listened to his words, which caused her renunciation of sin—the scene depicted by Diego Velazquez in his Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (c. 1620) at the London National Gallery. In the house of Simon the Pharisee, Mary Magdalen washed Christ's feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with costly oils—a prefiguration to the anointment of Christ's body after the Crucifixion. This is the scene depicted by Dirk Bouts in Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee of the 1440s (Berlin, Staatliche Museen). Mary Magdalen usually weeps at the foot of the cross during the Crucifixion, as in Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece (fin. 1515; Colmar, Musée d' Unterlinden). She was the first to visit Christ's sepulcher, only to find it empty. Christ appeared to her and, at first, she took him for a gardener. When she realized who he was, she tried to touch him, but he cautioned her against it as he had not yet ascended to heaven. In art, the scene is called Noli me tangere (Do not touch me) and shows Christ carrying a hoe. Examples are Titian's version of c. 1510 in the London National Gallery and Correggio's of c. 1525 in the Madrid Prado. After Christ's death, Mary Magdalen went to Provence in France where she spent the rest of her life in the wilderness engaging in penance. In art, this period in her life was also a common subject. Donatello's Mary Magdalen in her last years is by far the most expressive as he rendered the saint in polychromed wood as an emaciated, toothless figure covered by her long red tresses (1430s-1450s; Florence, Museo dell' Opera del Duomo).

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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