Every Mannerist worth his weight in papal commissions loves painting Mary Magdalene. Wake up, paint Mary Magdalene, repeat, that was the artist’s watchword of the Renaissance. And it’s not a Mary Magdalene painting if she’s not half-dressed and brimming with repentance. If there was one thing Mary Magdalene loved, it was repenting. Wake up, repent of something, repeat, that was her watchword, presumably, if centuries-later paintings are anything to go by.
In the Gospels themselves, Mary Magdalene doesn’t show up much until later on in Jesus’ ministry; he cured her of a number of vague ailments which were described as “the plagues of seven demons,” and she was the first person to visit his tomb after the Crucifixion. (Lovely side note – religious scholars have pointed out that although Jesus’ twelve male disciples fled in the hours following his death, Mary wasted no time in going to see his body. In the Bible, it’s Mary Magdalene who becomes the first to learn and tell others of the Resurrection – which means that in the hours between seeing the risen Christ and reaching the other disciples, Mary Magdalene was the entire church.)
Anyhow! By the time of the European Renaissance, Mary Magdalene was conflated with numerous other Marys in the New Testament, particularly with an unnamed prostitute who coated Jesus’ feet in expensive perfume and her own tears. And, if you have learned nothing else from this occasional series, it is that European Renaissance-era dudes loved nothing more than injecting sexy babes into their Biblical tableaux. So Mary Magdalene is often painted repenting of her numerous sins…sexily.
Sexiness and repentance, by the way, are two very difficult feelings to paint simultaneously in the same person. Guess which of the two usually won out?
This one’s a nice way to set the tone. Classic penitence. Her right sleeve has fallen off the shoulder, to remind you that she’s had sex, but she’s otherwise appropriately dressed. She’s reading a really long book, she’s looking at the sky, I think there’s a skull in the background. Somber, muted tones. Mournful expression. Repentance! Right? That’s the vibe you get from this, generally. She’s repenting, ready to rise on the stepping-stones of her dead self to higher things, and various related activities. Full marks.
Granted, in this picture she is both fully naked and sitting on people like they’re chairs, but then again, she is looking directly toward the swiftly-parting heavens with an expression of rapture. Her heart is in the right place, even if she is treating a pair of angels like Lady Godiva’s horse.
Now she is just asleep!
Repenting is exhausting work, guys! She’s a sleepy li’l penitent, that Mary Magdalene. She’ll repent as soon as she gets up.
This Mary has about eight minutes of repentance in her, and then she’s just killing time.
truly and heartily sorry, repent of all of my sins…how much longer is this thing
Sensual nude beach reclining! This is less “first female apostle of the church” and more “that girl from the Cycles Gladiator wine ads.”
Lest you all think I’m overreaching, every single one of these paintings is named The Penitent Magdalene, or some variation thereof. “Spiritualized regret” is the effect for which these painters are striving! Yet here, the Magdalene’s lips are curled in what is clearly an Elvis-like sneer of disgust!
Her expression here is a curious mix between just-falling-asleep, tears of passion and sorrow, and Paul Rudd’s expression when he has to pick up his plate in Wet Hot American Summer.
“I’ll read, but only if I can take my top off.”
I DON’T KNOW WHAT EXPRESSION THAT IS, BUT IT’S MY FAVORITE
Asleep at the watch again! I sometimes think all these painters must have her confused with the parable of the five wise and the five foolish virgins, and also a little bit with that part in the Garden where Jesus asks the disciples “Could you not stay awake with me for even a little while?” but it is CLEARLY LABELED The Penitent Magdalene, so I don’t know why sleep is such a prominent feature here. That’s clearly the bottle of perfume by her feet, the one she presumably used to anoint Jesus, which I suppose is sleepy work. After a long day of anointing and removing your ill-gotten jewels, there’s nothing like a long nap sitting perfectly upright in a wooden chair.
Mary-as-Sméagol! Mary is building a tent fort out of her own robes! Mary is having a cuddle! But Mary is not repenting.
This is Mary the SULLEN. Naked and sullen. Not repentant. This woman has never regretted a single thing she has done in her wonderful, naked life.
“Excuse me, I am reading.”
Shirtlessly, poutily relaxing on her favorite skull. Baroque painters were roughly as good as modern-day comic artists at depicting how the average lady likes to relax when she’s by herself.
A few points for looking at a skull, presumably to remind herself that life is stern and life is earnest, but her expression is less “Ah, I too must die someday, and must contemplate my many sins before I am called to appear before the Most High Judge” and more “UGH why did I even BUY this skull, it’s BROKEN and DEFECTIVE.”
“I’ll repent, fine, but I’m not giving up my brilliant gold cloak, or put on a shirt. Those are my terms.”
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.