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Mary Magdalene (Marie Madeleine)


     There is a delicate sensibility to this painting, in both style and imagery. Details are carefully executed with a fine brush, colors are mostly light and the general effect is of a weightless fragile elegance. The image began with a curving horizontal line in the center, resembling the edge of a vast circle, mostly unseen. This demarcation between the upper and lower part of the picture is the most important aspect of the painting in the sense that it provided the formal challenge, in terms of the composition. The space above the edge was painted in pale gray hues; soft and dreamlike, it is the distance; it is the backdrop to the pale luxurious yellow tones and hues of the hills and brightly colored houses and buildings of the foreground, the space below.

     In the center of the hills lies a flower, with a woman seated on a chair atop a pedestal, placed behind and to the side of the flower. As in the painting Pilgrim Warrior, the imagery arose from the subconscious, one image leading to another. The curve of the edge of the foreground and the mounds of hills reminded me of pregnant bellies and breasts full of milk. A hill is traditionally viewed as a symbol of fertility, eternity, a place of worship, meditation, and as a female emblem. The woman on the chair became my central focus in the excavation, as it were, of the meaning of the narrative, which is a story told through symbols.

      The white church in the background led me to think first of the Virgin Mary (a church is a symbol of faith, the intersection of heaven and earth, and the body of Christ). However, because the images seemed European in character, she appeared to be St. Mary Magdalene, who voyaged to France after the Ascension, with her sister St. Martha, brother St. Lazarus, St. Maximin, St. Sidonius, her maid Sera, and the body of St. Anne, mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary (these are the travelers according to Roman Catholic tradition).

     Ste.Marie-Madeleine and St. Marie de Magdala (and Marie de Bethanie) are the French appellations of St. Mary Magdalene. Also in the text on the painting is the word enceinte, which means ‘pregnant’. It seemed an appropriate choice to use the French language, as she spent the remainder of her life in the hills of Sainte Baume, about forty miles northeast of Marseilles. The point of arrival in Provence was Ratis, which later became known as Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Her remains lie in the Crypt in St. Maximin guarded by the Dominican Province of Toulouse.

     The word magdalene or magdala derives from the Hebrew word migdal, which means “tower”. Magdal-eder(Hebrew) means “watchtower of the flock”. During the Qumran era Mary was not only a name but also a title. It was a form of Miriam (the name of the sister of Moses and Aaron). Miriams (Marys) took part in formal ministry within spiritual orders such as the ascetic and healing community of the Therapeutate. Miriams were not allowed to own property, when Mary and her sister Martha inherited the castle Magdalene, Bethany, and part of Jerusalem, the heritage referred to personal status – high community stations (castle, towers), of guardianship. Mary Magdalene is a guardian of the flock.

     The towers in the painting seem to reflect this meaning, as well as being symbols of the link between heaven and earth, strength, aspiration, watchfulness, salvation, beauty, and treasure. Mountains also represent the link between heaven and earth, as well as spiritual elevation, resurrection, freedom, and peace. Houses represent the feminine aspect of the universe, shelter, tradition, and the body; trees also signify the feminine, as well as divine wisdom, the link between three worlds (heaven, earth, and the underworld) and immortality. The bird is another symbol of immortality, and also of imagination, the soul, creation, love, freedom, and peace.

     The dove, in particular, represents never-ending love, as they mate for life; in the Christian tradition, the dove represents the Holy Ghost, under which figure the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ at His Baptism. Birds also signify air, wind, and time. The river, another symbol of fertility and peace, is also a representation of the irreversible passage of time, rebirth, and the creative power of time and nature. A dance, expressed through the four figures dancing on top of the hills, signifies joy, celebration, and the possession of a higher power. Dancing is also linked with rhythm and transforming time into motion. The moon, too, is associated with the rhythm of time as it embodies the cycle. The full moon represents maturity and pregnancy.

     The reference in the text to Mary Magdalene as pregnant, alludes to the many new theories about her life, based on the studies of ancient Christian texts discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries (for example: The Gospel of Mary found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, about half a century ago). The speculation that Mary bore a child or the children of Jesus, may seem rather farfetched, but less so in light of the laws and social customs of the time, and the new knowledge revealed in these texts (which include: Dialogue of the Savior, Sophia of Jesus Christ, Gospel of Philip, and Pistis Sophia). What is clear from the studies of the texts, is that the role of early Christian women was completely different from what we presumed. In addition, The New Testament has undergone more critical study, which demonstrates, for instance, that the portrait of Mary as an adulteress and repentant whore is not even to be found in the gospels.

     In the fourth century, Christian theologians began to associate Mary Magdalene with the unnamed sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50. Karen L. King (Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard University in the Divinity School) explains:

The confusion began by conflating the account in John 12:1-8, in which Mary (of Bethany) anoints Jesus, with the anointing by the unnamed woman sinner in the accounts of Luke. Once this initial, erroneous identification was secured, Mary Magdalene could be associated with every unnamed sinful woman in the gospels. […] Mary the apostle, prophet and teacher had become Mary the repentant whore. This fiction was invented at least in part to undermine her influence and with it the appeal to her apostolic authority to support women in roles of leadership.

Women in Ancient Christianity: The New Discoveries

     It has also been remarked that during this time in ancient history, the word that was translated from the original to 'sinner' actually signified a celibate undergoing assessment in betrothal. Another point of interest in terms of a possible marriage (and children) between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, is that if Jesus was of the Davidic line, an heir to the House of Judah, he would have been required by law to marry and produce at least two sons. The rules of dynastic wedlock were complicated, beginning with a long period of courtship and a first marriage in September. A physical relationship was allowed in December. If conception was confirmed, a second marriage took place in March to legalize the wedding. During the trial period between the first and second marriage, the bride was considered as an almah, or 'virgin'. The birth of a child was followed by a period of three years of celibacy.

     The postulation that Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, and the unnamed ‘sinner’ are one and the same, is appealing only if seen from the viewpoint that the occasions of ‘anointing’ the feet of Jesus were part of the marriage rites. However, most of those who believe that these three women are all Mary Magdalene, view her in terms of the repentant whore. Even so, she is much beloved, especially in France where the most active Magdalene cult was based at Rennes-le-Chateau, in the Languedoc region.

     While there is dispute and disagreement about the theories that involve supposition, there is much else that is agreed upon, especially that which we already knew. We knew that she was a Jewish woman of independent means who accompanied Jesus in his ministry, helping to support him with her own resources. In the New Testament she: “[…] is repeatedly portrayed as a visionary and leader of the early movement. […] In the Gospel of John, the risen Jesus gives her special teaching and commissions her as an apostle to the apostles to bring them the good news. She obeys and is thus the first to announce the resurrection and to play the role of an apostle, although the term is not specifically used of her. Later tradition, however, will herald her as ‘the apostle to the apostles.’ ”

      The newly discovered Egyptian writings elaborate upon her role as a favored disciple. In the Gospel of Philip, it is said that the “[…] Lord loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often.” In the Pistis Sophia, Jesus acknowledges her quest for knowledge, “Your heart is directed to the Kingdom of Heaven more than all your brothers”. There are numerous examples such as these, which depict her as the most beloved disciple, particularly in the Gospel of Mary, which dates from the early second century. Accounts of her remaining steadfast in her faith, unwavering when Jesus appears to her in a vision, how she comforts and instructs the other disciples after his departure, and that she received a “secret” teaching from the Lord in a vision.

     The painting Marie-Madeleine resembles a vision itself. It could be the narrative of a fairytale, or a legend. I interpreted the narrative as alluding to the stories, old and new, historical and speculative, of Mary Magdalene. She is fast becoming a prominent figure in women’s studies, and a powerful role model for women. The possibility that she was a mother makes her an even more accessible icon to women. She would then embody the timeless attributes of wisdom, love, strength, compassion, and spiritual devotion, and at the same time mirror essential aspects of women’s lives: sexuality, motherhood and devotion to a spouse.



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