Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Faces of Mary Magdalene

Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi; c. 1386 – December 13, 1466)
St Mary Magdalen (detail) c. 1457
Museo del Opera del Duomo, Florence

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (c. 1485-1576).
Penitent Mary Magdalen, c. 1530-35.
Oil on canvas, 33 x 27 1/8 in.
Signed (on ointment jar, lower left): TITIANVS
Palazzo Pitti, Florence

A. E. Harvey, a former Canon and Sub-Dean of Westminster, presents us with a review of the recent scholarly work on Saint Mary Magdalene: Robin Griffith-Jones`s MARY MAGDALENE:The woman whom Jesus loved 286pp. Canterbury Press. £12.99.

The review is in this week`s TLS

Little is known about Mary Magdalene from the Gospel accounts:

"All that is known about Mary Magdalene can be quickly told. She is mentioned in all the gospels as one of the witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and once in Luke’s Gospel among other women followers of Jesus, where it is also said that she was a person from whom "seven devils had gone out". On one occasion only (though a highly significant one) she appears alone: it is she, according to a haunting passage in John’s Gospel, who was the first to encounter Jesus in the garden after the resurrection. From this meagre information the most it is possible to infer with any confidence is that she was Galilean (Magdala is on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee), that she had been cured through an exorcism (presumably performed by Jesus), and that she was one of a small group of women who were close to Jesus both during his ministry and at his death, and who also had an experience of the risen Jesus. Mary Magdalene is distinguished from the other women solely by the fact that in John’s Gospel she is vouchsafed a dramatic meeting with the risen Jesus on her own."

Two Schools of Thought developed about Mary Magdalene: "one within the Church and one among groups known as "Gnostic" and regarded as heretical by the Church Fathers"

Of the one within the Church:

"One of these took its departure from the two occasions in the gospels where we meet at least one other woman called "Mary": the Mary known as a prostitute who wept over Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair at the Pharisee’s banquet, and the Mary of Bethany who brought expensive perfume to anoint him before the crucifixion. There is no evidence that these two Marys were the same as Mary of Magdala; but the temptation to assume their identity was very strong, and was yielded to decisively by church authorities in the sixth century, thereby creating an icon of the penitent sinner pouring out her gratitude for Jesus’ forgiveness in reckless generosity and rewarded by a privileged encounter with him at the resurrection.

This iconic quality is captured by Donatello in his astonishing sculpture of a haggard Mary, her nakedness concealed, it seems, entirely by her long hair."

As regards the Gnostic, this is the one exhumed and promoted by The Da Vinci Code:

"The other stream flows from the scene at the end of John’s Gospel, where Mary Magdalene is alone with Jesus, whom she mistakes for the gardener but then recognizes as the risen Lord whom she must not touch, but about whose miraculous resurrection she must immediately tell the other disciples.

Did not this scene elevate Mary to a quite exceptional status in the narrative, making her a crucial witness to the resurrection and recording a uniquely privileged experience of the divine? Did not this one scene constitute a challenge to the otherwise consistent reports in the New Testament that it was only men who were the accredited apostles and witnesses to the resurrection? The prominence of women, and their sometimes surprising ease of access to and converse with Jesus, is a striking feature in the gospel narrative; even in Paul’s letters there are notable examples of women taking leading roles in the early Church. How did it come about, then, that apostleship became ascribed exclusively to men? (It was, and still is, arguable that the apparent exception, the apostle Junia in Romans 16:7, is a form of a Roman masculine name, Junias.)

Might it not be that a male-dominated Church had deliberately downplayed her significance? Might it have been left to the so-called heretics to preserve her true dignity and importance, and thereby to recover an aspect of the life of Jesus – even an almost erotic intimacy with women, if not actual sexual love and marriage – which the main tradition of the Churches had suppressed in the interest of their disapproval of all expressions of sexuality other than within the marriage bond? It was a line of thought explored with vigour in some Gnostic circles.

It has surfaced occasionally down the centuries until the present day; and now countless readers have been fascinated by the fictional exploitation of it in The Da Vinci Code."

In conclusion, the reviewer disagrees with the thesis of Griffiths-Jones that the Gnostic approach needs to be re=examined and re-assessed and possibly be given greater weight to:

"If we falter in our confidence in this reading of the scene [that is, at the end of John’s Gospel, where Mary Magdalene is alone with Jesus, whom she mistakes for the gardener] , with its rich infusion of erotic imagery from the Song of Songs, we may begin to feel that the hinge has had too great a weight placed upon it.

It is certainly true that this scene has fascinated generations of readers and inspired legions of artists; but does it really have such crucial significance in the Gospel? Is it really the case that the reader is intended to see in Mary the prototype and embodiment of the true "Gnostic", the one who is led to "know" a reality beyond the senses?

The purpose of John’s Gospel, after all, is quite explicitly said to be that we should "believe", not that we should "know" (John 20:31). And the one truly "Gnostic" vision (angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man) is promised, not to a woman, but to a man (Nathaniel).

For all Griffith-Jones’s protestations of a historian’s impartiality, his occasional references to contemporary Christian attitudes ("the solemn voice of a priest or minister browbeating us in church", etc) inevitably make one alert to traces of a hidden agenda.

Indeed, the subtitle itself, The woman whom Jesus loved, already goes beyond anything we can infer for certain from the gospel text."

In the sixteenth century a new image of the Magdalen in her grotto appeared which effectively replaced Donatello’s model, inspired by new conceptions of the nature of sacred and profane love and beauty, and the reawakened interest in the classical nude

Donatello’s Magdalen subtly hints at former beauty, in order to contrast it with later renunciation. Titian’s Penitent Magdalen of 1531-5 is still evidently a highly sexually attractive, nubile young woman.

Titian’s representation of the saint became immediately popular.

In the Baroque era (under the influence of the Counter-Reformation), the image of Mary Magdalene underwent another fundamental change. Previously she had been honoured because she had oversome sin. Now she was interesting bevause she was an exciting loving and penitent sinner

The hermit in flight from the world. The penitent. The great lover who transferred her formerly sinful love to Jesus.

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