by Kaitlyn Kohr
Whether you know her as a saint, a prostitute, the apostle to the apostles, or even as a Christ’s possible lover, it is impossible to deny that Mary Magdalene is one of the most powerful women in the Christian tradition and perhaps most well-known after the Madonna. Her reputation as both a saint and a sinner have made her a symbol of the everyday woman. She is real and accessible to women in a way that other biblical women are not. Her accessibility is enhanced by her image, which reflects societal attitudes about women more than her own actually identity.
This approachability is especially prominent in art of the Magdalene, in which her beauty, sexuality, and personality are a reflection of beauty norms and women’s roles at the time the art was created. In the middle of the Italian Renaissance, there began to be a large number of paintings produced that depicted a sensuous, scantily clad or nude Mary Magdalene who is in the middle of penitence or prayer. These images are a drastic shift from prior Magdalene artwork, which usually depicted her clothed and surrounded by her saintly attributes.
The painting The Penitent Magdalene painted by the Italian Domenico Tintoretto in 1598 showcases the new image of the Magdalene. She is a beautiful young woman with flowing hair, her body nude yet covered by a cloth, praying to the heavens surrounded by religious objects. The image is spiritual and sexual at the same time. In the 1876 Mary Magdalene in the Cave by the French painter Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Mary Magdalene is completely nude with fire-red hair spread around her as she covers her face with her arm, lying in the cave where she lived out the rest of her life in penance after Christ’s death. This image is much more blatantly sexual than Tintoretto’s with the Magdalene appearing to be rolling in some kind of religious ecstasy.
So what can feminists take from these images, created almost entirely by males that encompass both the erotic and religious devotion? These images depict female sexuality in a time when women’s sexuality was misunderstood and repressed. Yet, in art the Magdalene is in all her nude glory, beautiful and repentant before God. For women in the past as well as today she is a model of the balance between religion and sex. In a religion that has so often been interpreted to forbid desire, Mary Magdalene is a figure that Christian women can look to for sexual empowerment. In a society that condemns women who practice and enjoy sex, the Magdalene is a savior of sorts. For women who may worry about sex or their enjoyment of sex and its consequences for their spirituality, Mary Magdalene appears as an important figure who shows that the two are not mutually exclusive. She stands as a model of a woman who is not oppressed, basking in her sensuality and incorporating religion into her passion.