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Portrait Of A Repentant Sinner Who Loved Much

July 22, 2021 Featured Today No Comments


Recently I had the great privilege of visiting New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, something that as a native New Yorker I should have done many years earlier but never got around to doing until now — Mea culpa! Before going to the museum, I put together a checklist of favorite religious paintings I knew I would want to look for, but there was one that I somehow forgot to put on the list, even though I had known it and loved it for many years. As I was entering one of the galleries and turned around, I suddenly found myself standing before it — Georges de La Tour’s Penitent Magdalene (ca. 1640).
The stark simplicity of this masterpiece speaks volumes, depicting St. Mary Magdalene at the very instant in her life that would change everything. Her face we see only in silhouette. It is as if she were averting her gaze, turning away as she is gripped by an overwhelming shame for what her life has been up to that moment.
In the mirror before her, only the candle on her dressing table is reflected. There is no reflection of her face; where her face should be in the mirror, there is only darkness. On the table before her and on the floor at her feet lie the jewels with which she until now had been wont to bedeck herself.
Beneath her folded hands and upon her lap rests the symbol of the stark reality she has at last confronted, a skull, the emblem of death. And yet amid all this, there is something immensely beautiful here. In this moment of discovering the truth about herself, she is discovering the mercy of God.
The candle burns with it; the light from it bathes her grieving face. Her long and graceful hair, gently tinged by this light, will become in her hands a most eloquent expression of her repentance, the towel wherewith she will reverently wipe the feet of her forgiving God watered with her tears of contrition. What de La Tour is capturing here is one of the greatest and most beautiful moments that can transpire on the face of the Earth — the moment when a sinner turns back to God: “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you’” (Luke 15:18).
It is the conversion of this one woman of Magdala that has given courage and hope to countless Christians across the centuries and across continents, that “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). In a 2019 study, the art historian Daniela Bohde discovered that the placement of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross in “Western art, which first arose in the thirteenth century and eventually became almost universal, appears to have been inspired in particular by the devotional need of the beholder to “identify with her” as a repentant sinner, to seek and find mercy at the feet of Christ as Mary Magdalene did when she first came to our Lord in the house of Simon the Pharisee. In these artistic renderings of the Magdalene on Calvary, all the varied gestures of penitent souls are represented:
“. . . she sits, kneels, or crawls, clings to the cross from in front or behind, wrings her hands or stretches them upward to her Redeemer, veils her face or presses it onto the wood of the cross, stares at the pierced feet or gazes upward to the crucified Christ” (Daniela Bohde, “Mary Magdalene at the Foot of the Cross: Iconography and the Semantics of Place,” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, volume 61, n. 1, 2019, pp. 6, 41-42).
The earliest significant portrayal of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross, a depiction that was to shape this genre for centuries afterward, is that of the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1267-1337) in his fresco of the crucifixion for the Scrovegni Chapel of Padua, dating from around 1305. Acclaimed by his contemporary the chronicler Giovanni Villani (+1348) for the realism of his art, Giotto presents an emotionally charged scene of Mary Magdalene kneeling beneath the cross, her face wrenched with grief, bending forward to touch the pierced feet of Christ, with one hand taking her long golden hair to wipe the left foot while moving her head forward seemingly to press her forehead to the right foot.
In the same chapel, Giotto again places the Magdalene at the feet of our Lord in his fresco of the Lamentation, a depiction of Christ laid out in death after having been taken down from the cross. As the Blessed Virgin closely embraces the head and shoulders of her Divine Son resting upon her lap, Mary Magdalene, seated upon the ground, gently embraces the Savior’s right foot with both her hands as she looks upon the pierced feet with a fixed gaze.
The constant in Western portrayals of Mary Magdalene on Calvary from Giotto onward is the placement of her close to the feet of Christ, implicitly referencing the two occasions when she anointed the feet of our Lord, the first upon her conversion from a life of sin (Luke 7:37-50) and the second as an expression of her overflowing love and gratitude following the raising of her brother Lazarus from the dead (John 12:3-8). So utterly unique and extraordinary was this humble gesture of hers that when St. John first mentions her in his Gospel to begin his relation of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, he identifies her as “Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 11:2). She is also the only follower of Christ who is described as sitting “at the Lord’s feet” while listening to Him teach (Luke 10:39). In light of what our Lord said about sinners entering the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of the chief priests and elders (Matt. 21:31), how very fitting it is that one of these repentant sinners of whom He spoke should become one of His greatest disciples, standing side by side with our Lady on Golgotha and becoming the first witness to announce the Resurrection to the apostles.
As many of our readers know, identifying Mary Magdalene as a “repentant sinner” has become of late a veritable scandal to some, and particularly to those intent upon giving the saint an extreme makeover. The ancient and very stable tradition in the West that Mary Magdalene is the unnamed woman who as a penitent anointed the feet of Christ in the home of Simon the Pharisee and that she is the woman named Mary who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus has been called into question, first in the sixteenth century largely by Protestants, but in more recent times by modern biblical scholars of the “higher criticism” variety as well as by radical feminists.
With the dubious opinions of certain modern biblical scholars reigning unchallenged in many Catholic seminaries and universities from the 1960s onward, this categorical rejection of the Church’s traditional understanding of the Magdalene’s identity has spread everywhere, presented as if it were a proven fact, beyond question by any “rational person” — that “today’s Catholic” no longer believes such a “foolish and backward thing.”
To admit that the Bible does not expressly state whether the unnamed sinner in Luke 7, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are one and the same woman is one thing; it is quite another to demand that that they not be thought of as the same woman and that the whole rich tradition of the Church regarding her should be accounted worthless and discarded. Why are these deniers so dogmatic in condemning the tradition? Can they prove that Mary Magdalene is not the penitent woman of Luke 7 and not the sister of Martha and Lazarus? Of course they can’t.
These critics allege that this tradition of Mary Magdalene as the penitent woman was essentially “invented” by Pope St. Gregory the Great (+604), who expressly identifies her as both the penitent woman of Luke 7 and Mary of Bethany in his Homily 33 on the Gospels. They ignore the fact that Pope Gregory I is considered one of the greatest Pontiffs in the history of the Church, and that he is credited with codifying several of the most important practices and traditions of the Church, including the sacred liturgy and Gregorian chant. It is also Pope Gregory the Great who enumerates for the first time the seven capital sins. His role in the Magdalene tradition only serves to strengthen its credibility.

A Venerable Tradition

It is moreover untrue to say that this tradition only began with Pope Gregory. References to it can be found as early as the third century. And those who say the scriptural evidence precludes this tradition are simply wrong. In a 1975 study, the French biblical scholar Fr. Andre Feuillet (+1998) demonstrated how the various references in the Gospels to the penitent woman of Luke 7, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany can be shown to support the belief that these all refer to one and the same woman.
A very helpful English-language summary of Fr. Feuillet’s presentation can be found in Fr. Sean Davidson’s excellent book, Saint Mary Magdalene: Prophetess of Eucharistic Love (Ignatius Press, 2017 — see in particular pp. 23-32).
There are also the ancient pilgrimage sites and relics in Provence associated with the venerable tradition that St. Mary Magdalene together with Saints Martha and Lazarus ultimately migrated to this region of France. In 2019 a forensic science paper was published confirming that the skull and hair relics venerated as those of Mary Magdalene are the authentic human remains of a woman and providing a computer-aided reconstruction of what her face would have looked like.
The late medieval Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden (+1464) is the only major artist to depict the Blessed Virgin rather than Mary Magdalene as wrapping her arms around the cross during the crucifixion, her face spattered with her Divine Son’s blood, a powerful and moving testament that no one shared more intimately and deeply in the sufferings of our Lord than did our Lady.
Yet it is also quite right that most artists have chosen to put Mary Magdalene in this privileged spot at the very foot of the cross, because we as sinners really need to be there, and our Lady herself wants us to be there. Seeing Mary Magdalene there, she whose “sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Luke 7:47), gives us courage and hope that our sins too, though they be many, will be forgiven also, if we like her will love much, as she did. Dear St. Mary Magdalene, please pray for us.

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