Frankly Scarlet: Representations of St. Mary Magdalen Through the Italian Renaissance


Within Christian iconography there has been a standard representation of scenes from the life of Christ. The main female figure in these scenes is Mary: Jesus’ mother, an archetypal maternal signifier. In addition to an otherwise mostly male visual narrative there is an inclusion of another woman who represents a younger, more worldly, archetype, and that is the figure of Mary Magdalen. An amalgamation of three different women in the biblical narrative, her pictorial representation was reduced to a single archetype. Thereafter, she was portrayed as a prostitute, and her repentance doubly referenced in artworks as both a material and a sexual renunciation. Mary Magdalen is also arguably the first European fashion icon, easily identified by her striking red hair and her gorgeous attire. Her representation as a courtesan, afforded the artist an opportunity to clothe her in the latest dresses created from the most beautiful fabrics. Through her lovely image we can look back through time at what fashion arbiters were wearing through history; also how their hair was styled, and the jewels they collected in the time periods contemporaneous to the dates of the paintings. Through the artistic handling of the image of Mary Magdalen we can also analyze the social mores of the era when the painting was created: be it the masculinized and heavily veiled Magdalene of Giotto who was displayed on a wall fresco of an all male monastery, or the nearly nude Venetian Magdalen of Tiziano who pleads to heaven with her penitent face, while her ample décolletage nearly tumbles out of her dress. There is even an erotically charged sub-genre of Magdalenes who are depicted lady Godiva-sque, cloaked only in flowing hair. The antithesis of these decadent representations is the wood carving by the Florentine Donatello showing an aged ascetic Magdalene, who has through her renunciation of worldly mores also shed her beauty and youth. However, probably the most significant Magdalen is by Artemisia Gentileschi, her Magdalen is not an allegorical icon upon which the larger themes of renunciation and piety can be written by an external observor. This Magdalen is a real woman who reflects on the spiritual journey upon which she is about to embark. Gentileschi alone has invested the iconographic symbolism and significance of the Mary Magdalen legend with individuality, and the element of making a conscious decision to pursue spiritual piety.

(Full paper upon request)

Frankly Scarlet: Representations of St. Mary Magdalen Through the Italian Renaissance”

@Mark O’Connell 2016 all rights reserved, no reproduction without authorization

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