the composite Magdalene: Mary of Magdala in the imagination of the church: merger of three (or even four) women
The images associated with these women are on a separate page, you can jump to clicking on the "madeleines":
About the true or real Mary Magdalene we know nothing, except that the Gospels tell us that she (1) followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem (after her 'liberation experience': Luke 8: 2); (2) that she remained with him to the very last and thus was present at the Crucifixion, the Deposition from the Cross and the Entombment ; (3) that her name comes first in all the Gospels when it comes to witnesses to the Resurrection. She is the the apostle of the apostles.
A supposed past as a prostitute is not mentioned, neither is the anointment with oil connected with her name. Her origin and later life remain in limbo. Very old traditions point to Ephesus for her grave. Why then had 'La Madeleine' become the prototype of the penitent sinner; Why is she so often depicted in a cave, naked, and with extremely long hair; What about that omnipresent bottle of anointing oil (or is it perfume?) ? The answer is simple: The image of Mary Magdalene in the church's tradition is a complex idea, literally, a composite portrait. She is the merger of three biblical women, afterwards supplemented with an extra-biblical hermit.
The three biblical women are:
1. Mary Magdalene (= or Magdala, El Mejdel, a prosperous town on the Sea of Galilee), legendary [the question is: before or after the Legend started to spread] because of the loose manners that are supposed to have been common there. Magdala was destroyed by the Romans in 75 CE. Mary Magdalene is mentioned as one of the women who followed Jesus and stuck to him, after he had liberated her from 'seven devils'. (Luke 8, 2). She is put down extremely lifelike by John (the gospel author) when he depicts her roaming in the grave yard on Easter morning before dawn passionately seeking for 'her lord ', weeping. When she finds him, she mistakes him for the gardener (what a wonderful 'error') , but - after Jesus calls her by her name - she throws her arms around his neck (or falls at his feet, just as you like), whereupon Jesus utters the famous words: Noli me tangere (but in Aramaic of course, or Greek, meaning either: Do not hold me or do not touch me. Which translation is to be preferred is still discussed by scholars): a 'stock image' at Easter.
2. An anonymous 'sinner' who, barging in at a posh dinner at Simon-the-Pharisee's place, kissed Jesus' feet, then dried them with her hair, and anointed them. Luke tells the story in Chapter 7; He uses the term "sinner." In the discussion she evokes - in that venerable company of men - Jesus defends her against the criticism of the host. That she was a prostitute, is not said in so many words, but the term "sinner" and her loose hair is suggestive. After a parable about forgiveness of sins, Jesus speaks the famous words: Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.(v 47). Ominous words as well because often mis-interpreted: of course Jesus does not refer to her practice as a prostitute because prostitution has nothing to do with love. A few verses later the name of Mary Magdalene is mentioned (Luke 8,2) as one of the women who followed Jesus after Jesus had liberated her from 'seven devils'. The identification of the first two women is at hand. Both the Eastern and Western Church have accomplished this.
3. Mary of Bethany (who "sat at the feet of Rabbi Jesus" to learn), the sister of Lazarus and Martha. She anoints his feet in the Gospel of John (Chapter 12), very similar to the sinner in Luke 7, also wiping his feet with her hair. An identification of woman 2 with woman 3 (and through woman 2 also with woman 1) is impossible, if we take seriously the varying chronology and geography of the Gospels, but literary it is of course very enticing. The Eastern Church however has never done it. Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala are two different female Saints.
By contrast, in the Western Church, in a famous sermon on Mary Magdalene Gregory the Great has accomplished this identification as thoroughly as possible (late 6th century). Only in the 16th century (Humanism and Reformation) the different Mary's were - not without a lot of fuzz - disassembled. The French theologian/philosopher/philologist Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples wrote a highly controversial essay: De Maria Magdalena et triduo Christi disceptatio, 1517. It remained the talk of the town well into 1519 but was finally condemned as heretic by the Paris theologians of the Sorbonne. It did not end the artistic and rhetoric representation of the 'composite Magdalen, the merger Mary'. On the contrary: After the Council of Trent, the moral-preaching about sexuality began once more to exploit the possibilities of the Penitent Magdalene.
"With the perfume that once shamefully made her body smell so sweetly, she now anointed the feet of the Lord; her eyes once coveting worldly affairs were now filled with tears of penance; with the hair that previously served to enhance her attractiveness, she now dried her tears; Her lips previously only pronouncing proud words, now humbly kissed the feet of the Lord. "(Gregory the Great on Mary Magdalene, sermon XXXIII, own paraphrase/translation, section in which he links the 7 devils to the 7 mortal sins)
The result was that the pious Mary (who had chosen the 'better part', sitting at Jesus' feet) now has a "past", and not a positive one. The seven evil spirits (demons, devils) were equated with the seven deadly sins. The "old" Mary was a rich, desirable, lustful, proud and haughty woman. Some paintings (like those of Caravaggio) paint scenes from the period in which her sister Martha admonishes her for lookinginto the mirror too often.
The famous French historian Georges Duby does not hesitate to call the merging of these three female figures "a stroke of genius of the Latin Fathers". The portrait of the (imaginary) woman which emerges is so incredibly rich that she has become one of the most influential female individuals of European history. A "Complement" to the always chaste virgin-mother Mary, this complex person expresses/visualises a large part of the Churchs view on women, the female.
Mary Magdalene (as such a 'composite woman') is perfectly fit as an object lesson on sexuality and sin. She evokes the "forbidden" and "averts" it at the same time. There are tears, there is her hair, there's the smell of the precious spikenard. She is completely physical, she is 100% woman. Her "past" as a prostitute (officially to be condemned), combined with her great love for Jesus made her very exciting. She became a genre piece entitled: the penitent Magdalene. From Titian onwards she is depicted with a languishing-penitent upward gaze, almost (or completely) bare chest and breast. She often sits in a cave, usually with a vanitas symbol: at least a skull.
Add to this the praise and protective words of Jesus towards theanonymous sinner that "she loved so much" and to Mary of Bethany "that her anointing act would be mentioned wherever the gospel of Christ would be proclaimed, because she alone understood the goal of his mission"; and that she never abandoned, or betrayed Jesus at his Passion and was the first to recognize him at Easter (becoming theapostolorum apostola) and you understand why Georges Duby called this merging "a stroke of genius". This duality makes Mary a remarkable woman and also opens the gates for much ambiguity. With her the "male Church" tried to classify the seductive woman and the sexual impulse, at the same time channeling "sensuality": it was a hindrance, but to be overcome if repented. Of course visual artists enjoy painting or sculpting Mary Magdalene. Of course they paint her as an example of a fallen woman, but as so many paintings of evil the effects are often counterproductive. Many penitent Magdalenes are painted or sculpted so tempting, that looking at them arouses the spectators rather than admonishing them to repent. Even the worship of the ever chaste virgin Mary could not escape this ambiguity, but this set aside.
Mary of Egypt