The Scorned Touch of a Holy Woman

I feel like it’s finally time. My symposium is done, my research is coming along, the semester is closing. I could talk about this FOR HOURS. Days, even.

It’s time I acquaint you all with my Art History research project: imagery and depictions of Mary Magdalene, and their impact on Renaissance society’s standards for women. Exciting, right? You all are going to read this, and then immediately say “OMG, Sarah, email me your 35 page paper as SOON as it’s done,” and I will say “Of course dear reader! How could you not want more?”. The scorned reputation of Mary Magdalene as a foil to the Virgin Mary is so infuriating because it’s simply not true. All of the things we know about her were completely constructed in order to create a woman to hate. Heaven forbid we have TWO holy women to look up to-no, that will never do. So instead, the Magdalene as we know her today has been constructed from a slew of nameless women of the bible.

I have so many pieces in this thesis, but for the sake of brevity and interest I am just going to talk about two here (but I will include all of the juicy images, don’t worry) as I think they prove the point of what I’m trying to do in these few short pages the best. 

So what do we know about Mary Magdalene–surface level stuff, right? She’s a prostitute gone holy, a close follower of Christ, somehow just there at all of the big moments. Nope! Wrong! She’s not a prostitute. She’s arguably the closest follower of Christ! So of course she would be at the big moments! Her following of Christ and God was so close that Jesus replaced the seven sins from her with the seven virtues. Not only this, she is the only one to have undergone this process. 

In my opinion, Mary Magdalene’s image acts as a sponge for the human things about Christ. She’s depicted as truly being his other half, so what we can’t stomach about him we throw onto her. He’s rubber, she’s glue, all that stuff. We can’t see the son of God as sexual, so Mary Magdalene becomes known as a prostitute. Similarly, we can’t see him as defiant or snarky, so Mary Magdalene becomes known for her quick tongue. (Although I will say, that part is true. She’s very witty in her Gospel, but if everyone was questioning your expertise you would be too! The women reading this understand, and hopefully appreciate.) Inherently, her image along with many others in the imagery and stories of Renaissance Christianity point to all of sin being born from a woman. Whether it’s Eve, the Magdalene, or a number of other women in the scripture. The only woman we deem holy is stripped of so much of her womanhood she seems other all entirely. The Virgin is our role model here, so apparently all we have left is places of villain hood, right?

So the art, right. In 1514 Titian paints the moment of Christ’s revival: Noli me Tangere. Known for her place at the scene, Mary Magdalene reaches for the zombie son of God but is pushed away. Noli me Tangere, when translated into our own mother tongue, reads as “touch me not”. Mary Magdalene kneels before Christ, his most loyal follower, and she’s instructed to stay away? In all honesty, Christ almost looks repulsed with her being there in this work. Her touch throughout many of the paintings I’ve looked at is treated like the Cheese Touch or something. If you look closely, most of the time she has a barrier between her skin and another person! This is all well and good, right, until you remember the Incredulity of St Thomas. Painted by Giovanni Battista just a few years earlier (1505-06), the Incredulity of Saint Thomas shows us the moment that Christ presents himself to another of his disciples after rising from the grave. And what is this man expected to do to prove that Christ is real? Touch him! Right in the wounds! Gross, if you ask me.

Closing this out is incredibly difficult because I really can’t stop talking about it ever, but I will try my best to end it with this. Remember that reputation and imagery, especially of women, is often far from the truth even today. As my writing on this blog comes to a close (which I am so sad about, but that’s for another post) I hope that you all have begun to look at art with a sharper eye beyond just that of beauty, color, and form. And if anyone wants that paper, let me know. I’m sure I’ll need editors, I have crippling ADHD and hate checking my work. Oh, and down with the patriarchy and all that.

Fra Angelico, Crucifixion with Attendant Saints (1441-42) :

Scipione Pulzone, Crucifixion with the Virgin, Mary Magdalene, Saint John the Evangelist (1585-90) :

Fra Angelico, Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (1436-41) :

Carlo Crivelli, Pieta (1476) :

Titian, Noli me Tangere (1514) :

Giovanni Battista, Incredulity of St Thomas (1459) : University of California, San Diego

Titian, Repentant Mary Magdalene (1555-56) :

Jan Gossaert, Mary Magdalene (1525-30) :

Jan Gossaert, Virgin and Child (1478-1536) :

Fra Bartolommeo and Mariotto Albertinelli, Deposition (1511) :

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