The Power of Absolution: Other Portrayals of Mary Magdalen

Lara Belfield

Figure 15: Bartolomeo Bulgarini, “St. Mary Magdalen,” 14th century, Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo Credit: Richard Stracke

Figure 15: Bartolomeo Bulgarini, “St. Mary Magdalen,” 14th century, Musei Capitolini, Rome.
Photo Credit: Richard Stracke

There are countless depictions of Mary Magdalen from both before and after Bernini’s time.  It is important to consider, when comparing Bernini’s representation with those done by other artists, what it was about the figure that made her so recognizable, and whether other artists chose to depict her in the same way and with the same attributes.  Images of Mary Magdalen most commonly showed her with some sort of small jar or bottle, as she was thought to be the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.  Any depiction that was meant to show the saint before her religious conversion shows her dress in fine clothing to denote her status as a wealthy woman.  Often, her clothing would be red to represent passion.  A painting by Bartolomeo Bulgarini from the 14th century is a typical example of this representation (fig. 15).

Georges de la Tour, The Penitent Mary Magdalen Photo Credit: Uncle Buddha

Figure 17: Georges de la Tour, “The Penitent Mary Magdalen,” 1640, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. 
Photo Credit: Uncle Buddha


Georges de la Tour, who was nearly contemporary with Bernini, took a different approach to representing Mary Magdalen (fig. 17).  This painting, entitled The Penitent Magdalen, is one in a small series that appear to show her in an advanced state of pregnancy.  The image harkens back to the vanitas paintings that were intended to remind viewers of their own mortality and contemplate the idea of death.  The twin flames, shown here with a candle and its reflection, were common symbols of partners or soul mates.  This, in conjunction with Mary Magdalen’s pregnancy, perpetuates the story of her marriage with Jesus.



Donatello, The Penitent Mary Magdalen, 15th century. Photo Credit: driganksha

Figure 18: Donatello, “The Penitent Mary Magdalen,” c. 1455, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. 
Photo Credit: driganksha

One of the most famous sculptures of Mary Magdalen was a mid-fifteenth century wood carving by Donatello entitled the The Penitent Mary Magdalen (fig. 18).  In a stark contrast with Bernini’s sculpture, this Mary Magdalen appears to have been ravaged by years of penitence, after she has renounced her worldly possessions.  The story of her thirty years of penitence is not actually mentioned in the Bible, but instead first appears in the Vita eremitica.[1] Mary Magdalen’s eyes are sunken and unfocused as she stares straight ahead, and her hair is unkempt.  While the physical toll is evident, Donatello’s Mary Magdalen also shows determination and strength in her posture and the position of her hands clasped securely in front of her body.[2]  Bernini’s figure is much more polished and almost delicate, as it shows Mary Magdalen on the turning point of her life when her religious experience convinces her to devote her life to the Lord.  By contrast, Donatello’s rough rendition clearly shows the harsh physical toll she suffered during her years of penance.[3]

The intended experience of the viewer is different for each of these representations, and is influenced by the intended location of each sculpture.  Bernini’s St. Mary Magdalen was executed specifically for its place by the entrance of the Chigi Chapel, and was meant to act as a last reminder to visitors of the pious way in which they were expected to feel.  This transitory, emotive Mary Magdalen was a model example of the perfect religious experience.  On the other hand, Donatello’s The Penitent Mary Magdalen shows a sense of strength and determination without the same focused religious lesson.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mary Magdalene, 1877. Photo Credit: Delaware Art Museum

Figure 19: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Mary Magdalene,” 1877, Delaware Art Museum.
Photo Credit: Delaware Art Museum

Depictions of Mary Magdalen have changed throughout the centuries to better display new information about her life as well as evolutions in artistic styles.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted numerous pieces that featured the biblical woman, including his Mary Magdalen from 1877 (fig. 19).  This painting shows Mary Magdalen dressed in green robes, surrounded by foliage.  Rather than hold her traditional attribute of the jar, Rossetti has chosen to paint her holding a large egg.  Eggs, as well as the color green, often symbolized fertility.[4]

Jonathan Weber, Mary Magdalene, 2005. Photo Credit: Jonathan Weber

Figure 20: Jonathan Weber, “Mary Magdalene,” 2005.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Weber

A modern example of an image of Mary Magdalen is Jonathan Weber’s painting from 2005 (fig. 20).  This work shows Mary Magdalen sitting, once again with the small jar, at the mouth of Jesus’ tomb.  She has come to anoint his body, but has instead found the tomb empty.  According to the artist’s statement, any initial fear or sadness she may have felt is gone, replaced with a peaceful awe at the fact that Jesus has ascended to Heaven.[5]  This representation shows a different emotion from Mary Magdalen than previously seen.  It is more tender, choosing to depict her at a moment of contended peace rather than disrupted by a vision or ravaged by years in the wilderness.

These images also represent how attitudes towards Mary Magdalen have changed, as well as the change in focus of modern artists when creating religious art.  Both Bernini’s and Donatello’s versions of Mary Magdalen were designed to teach viewers some sort of moral or Biblical lesson.  Audiences of the Renaissance and Baroque periods were expected to mimic the passion and emotion of Bernini’s St. Mary Magdalen, or be in awe of the sacrifice and years of suffering experienced by Donatello’s The Penitent Mary Magdalen.  The modern representations of Mary Magdalen show less of an emphasis on teaching the viewer as on conveying her as a realistic figure, less influenced by the divine and more grounded in the natural world.

Mary Magdalen as depicted from the nineteenth century onward can be considered more humanized and relatable.  Rossetti chose to focus on her possible sexual relationship with Jesus by utilizing symbols of fertility, potentially increasing her appeal to viewers as a possible equal rather than a divinely touched figure.  This image portrays Mary Magdalen as a symbol of fertility, and therefore motherhood, rather than a sinner and symbol of ultimate absolution.

[1] Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993), 235.

[2] Martha Levine Dunkelman, “Donatello’s Mary Magdalen: A Model of Courage and Survival,” Woman’s Art Journal 26, no. 2 (Autumn 2005-Winter 2006): 10.

[3] Dunkelman, 10.

[4] Margaret Starbird, Mary Magdalen, Bride in Exile (Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company, 2005), 134.

[5] Jonathan Weber, “Mary Magdalene,” Jonathan Weber Home Page, (accessed April 13, 2013).