Mary Magdalene in Art – Fallen Woman or Redeemed Saint

Mary Magdalene, Jesus’s disciple and follower, called the Apostle to the Apostles and held in high esteem by the early church has for the last fifteen hundred years in the West been remembered with a different reputation. So often reduced to a stereotype of the prostitute and fallen woman, her character defamation is reinforced by the art we see around us. Since my last blog about Mary, a friend contacted me to say that she played her as a prostitute in a play, and her husband, who she called a pastor’s son, had only heard about her salacious past. 

How Mary’s reputation changed from a faithful disciple, and a woman called an Apostle by the Church fathers to a seductress, read my two previous blogs about her.

Reclaiming Mary Magdalene

Aemilia Metella Interviews Mary Magdalene

Over the last thousand years, Mary has been represented in many ways, in art, sculpture, film and literature. Each century has reinvented her for a new audience and reflected the concerns and ideas of their own times.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, 2007 – 2022, says that her depiction in Western art has sullied her throughout the centuries. He says, “Art history made her become a prostitute, which is something not present in the Gospels. It is important to find the real face of Mary Magdalene, who is a woman who represents the importance of the female aspect on the side of Christ.”

Let’s dive in and see how Mary has been portrayed in art. She was, and still is, a very popular subject in Western art, and is highly adaptable, being shown as both the fallen woman and redeemed saint.

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588)

The National Gallery, London

In the sixth century, Pope Gregory confused Mary of Bethany and the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus’s feet as Mary Magdalene and combined the three women into one. It is not recorded in the gospels how Mary met Jesus, but Veronese painted the scene as he imagined it. Here Martha of Bethany brings Mary Magdalene to see Jesus in the Temple. Overcome with her sin, her necklace falls off symbolising her repentance and a turning away from her previous life of sin.

The Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene

Victor Honoré Janssens (1658–1736)

Durham University

The counter reformation renewed the focus on Mary’s repentance from her life of immorality and often showed her weeping for her past sins. In the guise of a pious subject of a saint, these paintings often show a surprising amount of bare flesh, depending upon the conventions of the time. We can certainly read this as a manifestation of the male gaze,

The Magdalene Weeping

Master of the Magdalen Legend (c.1483–c.1530) (studio of)

The National Gallery, London

There are several symbols used to show the paintings are of Mary Magdalene and not another woman saint. One is a skull which refers to her mortality and need for salvation. She is often seen carrying a jar, to either anoint Jesus’s feet or his body after his crucifixion.

Penitent Magdalene

Donatello c. (1453-1455)

White poplar wood sculpture

Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence

A wooden sculpture by Donatello shows another confusion of Mary Magdalene with the fourth century Mary of Egypt. Whose clothes wore out due to a life of piety and her hair grew to cover her nakedness. Mary’s continuing prayer, fasts, repentance and meditation upon her many sins, have caused her outward beauty to fade, to be replaced by inner peace.

Noli me Tangere

Titian (c.1488–1576)

The National Gallery, London

Many artists have painted the scene where Mary meets Jesus at the resurrection. Called Noli me Tangere, Latin for “Do not touch me” or “Do not cling on to me”. Here in the painting by Titian, Mary wears red, often a nod to her previous life, in contrast to the innocence of Mary, Jesus’s mother, who wears blue. Mary mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener and in these paintings, he often wears a hat and carries gardening tools.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Niccolò Dell ’Arca (1435 – 1494) Church of Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna

One of the most surprising things to come out of the research for this blog was the set of seven life-size terracotta figures from the fifteenth century by Niccolò dell ’Arca. The figures surround a dead Christ, lying with his head on a pillow. A distraught Mary rushes toward him, her clothes looking like they have been whipped up by the wind. Though Jesus’s death was a common setting amongst artists Dell’ Arca’s sculpture stands out from the more peaceful and conventional depictions in its almost contemporary feel.

Noli me tangere

Graham Vivian Sutherland (1903 -1980)

Chichester Cathedral.

Many of Graham Sutherland’s works appear in cathedrals and churches, and this one is found in Chichester Cathedral. Here Mary meets Jesus at the resurrection and mistakes him for the gardener. Jesus is ascending a staircase, and, in a nod to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, pointing his finger upwards, perhaps showing heaven or his later ascension. It feels as if Jesus is trying to get away from her. Mary is being left behind and the moment is slipping away from her.

It caused controversy at the time and was even defaced by a ball-point pen. Some thought Mary’s pose was overtly sexual and showed too much flesh (whatever would they think of Janssen’s painting?)

This is a modern feminist representation of Mary, who is remoulded into a feminist icon. Here she is holding a chalice and an egg, seen as a symbol of the resurrection. In modern myths, supported by The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, Mary was Jesus’s wife and was herself the chalice holding the bloodline of Jesus.

We can see from this small selection of images how Mary’s reputation has been sullied and how pervasive these ideas remain to this day. As Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi suggests, art has only highlighted and kept these images in the minds of Christians for centuries. It took another two popes to restore her reputation. Pope John Paul II I n 1988 finally separated Mary Magdalene from Mary of Bethany and the unnamed woman and once more called her the Apostle to the Apostles. In 2016, Pope Francis reaffirmed this title and elevated her liturgical celebration to the same rank as that of the apostles. But good news travels at a snail’s pace and changes to people’s perceptions may take a little longer. I challenge today’s artists to create new visual images that will restore Mary’s voice to that of the brave, dedicated disciple of Jesus she has always been.

If you have enjoyed this blog, why not take a look at my August 2021 blog,

Martha and Mary in Art

Susan Sutherland is the author of three books. To buy Leaving Bethany and the sequel Return to Caesarea please go to the buy page.

If you like Susan’s blogs sign up for the mailing list and receive a free copy of The Aemilia Metella Interviews.

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