Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Light and shade: Saint Mary Magdalene

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (active about 1480 - after 1548)
Saint Mary Magdalen 
about 1535-40
Oil on canvas
 89.1 x 82.4 cm
The National Gallery, London

The heavily draped woman is Saint Mary Magdalene. She seems to be in hiding, under cover.

The clues are there however as to her identity.

Underneath the heavy grey satin veil is a red dress which can just be glimpsed

There is a pot of ointment with which she anointed Christ's body. The pot of ointment is the clincher

The story is in John 20

It is different from Mt 28:8–10 and Mk 16:9–11.

No gardener here

After the Resurrection Mary goes to the tomb to anoint the body of Christ. She does not know He has Risen.  The tomb  is empty. She alerts the others. After they have come and gone she stays at the tomb weeping. 

Two angels ask her why she is weeping. She explains. She turns round. Christ appears. 

She is the first to see the Risen Christ

She is the first to bring the Good News to the Apostles. The Apostle  to the Apostles
"16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher.
17 Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
This painting is full of beautiful lighting effects. There are at least four light sources. Christ and the two angels with the rising sun are four sources of light

The lights are reflected in the silver grey satin veil which with its folds is a work of  beauty itself

The background appears to be Venice  seen from one of the islands (possibly the cemetery island of San Michele)

A number of versions and copies were made and one is in The Getty Museum in Los Angeles (below)

But here the veil is brown gold satin not the expensive silver grey above

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (active about 1480 - after 1548)
Saint Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre
About 1530s
Oil on canvas
92.7 x 79.4 cm (36 1/2 x 31 1/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

In both cases the figure of Mary Magdalene addresses the viewer through eye contact and gesture

She is staring. But is it at us ? Or is it at Christ whose light of the Risen Body reflects on her?

More is always implied or suggested than actually depicted

Savoldo was from Brescia but his work is firmly of the Venetian school

Unlike Romanino and Moretto, Savoldo did not settle in his native city. He traveled early on to Parma (1506) and Florence (1508) and was living in Venice by 1521 (and perhaps well before then). 

Savoldo had students in Venice, notably the painter and author Paolo Pino, and his work was well known there. 

Pino wrote in praise of him but mentioned that his works were few.

Savoldo was known in his time for  themes di notte, and it is clear that they were always considered to be extraordinary

Views of the Venetian lagoon and other landscapes such as the mountains around Brescia and Parma (see the Getty Museum painting) are to be  found in his works

Light was one the means he employed to study and describe visual reality. With shade and shadow he along with other artists of his generation could create among others three dimensional effects

His landscapes were called "even more real" than those by the Flemings whose work was well known in the Venice of his time (See Pino, Paolo (1548). Dialogo di Pittura di Messer Paolo Pino Nuovamente Dato in Luce)

He was a slow and meticulous artist, and unfortunately  few works of his survive

Those that do include evening or night scenes. They are painted in deep, vivid colours with subtle light effects. They have a wonderful sense of atmosphere and mystery

In The National Gallery painting, the striking silver of Mary's cloak  was created from lead white paint and soot. But it is his use of light and shade which makes this an outstanding work

The complexity of this work of faith can be seen from reading  the First Encyclical of Pope Francis entitled Lumen Fidei:

"30. The bond between seeing and hearing in faith-knowledge is most clearly evident in John’s Gospel. 
For the Fourth Gospel, to believe is both to hear and to see. 
Faith’s hearing emerges as a form of knowing proper to love: it is a personal hearing, one which recognizes the voice of the Good Shepherd (cf. Jn 10:3-5); it is a hearing which calls for discipleship, as was the case with the first disciples: 
      "Hearing him say these things, they followed Jesus" (Jn 1:37). 
But faith is also tied to sight. 
Seeing the signs which Jesus worked leads at times to faith, as in the case of the Jews who, following the raising of Lazarus, "having seen what he did, believed in him" (Jn 11:45). At other times, faith itself leads to deeper vision: 
      "If you believe, you will see the glory of God" (Jn 11:40). 
In the end, belief and sight intersect: 
      "Whoever believes in me believes in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me" (Jn 12:44-45). 
Joined to hearing, seeing then becomes a form of following Christ, and faith appears as a process of gazing, in which our eyes grow accustomed to peering into the depths. 
Easter morning thus passes from John who, standing in the early morning darkness before the empty tomb, "saw and believed" (Jn 20:8), to Mary Magdalene who, after seeing Jesus (cf. Jn 20:14) and wanting to cling to him, is asked to contemplate him as he ascends to the Father, and finally to her full confession before the disciples: 
      "I have seen the Lord!" (Jn 20:18)."