Picturing Mary Magdalene

ART HISTORIANS ARE NOT NECESSARILY the best commentators on art. They are primarily researchers: archival sleuths, inquirers, unearthers of fact. Gumshoes, the best of them.  Some can write, many cannot. The discipline draws bookish sorts who are more at home in a library carrel, reading up on the words of some other member of the discipline who needs to be corrected. Or quieted. Or slain. In many respects, the discipline can be thought of as the yeshivot of the art world, a seminary for orthodox secularists trying to puzzle out the path to a better heaven.

That brings me to my point, which is simply that some of the finest writers on art are not art historians. Sensibility—informed by scholarship but separate from it—is key to art writing. Persons of extraordinary sensibility are no more prevalent in art historical precincts than they are anywhere else. Enter Robert Kiely, distinguished scholar of modern literature (Professor Emeritus, Harvard)  and a lively critic. His Blessed and Beautiful: Picturing the Saints (Yale University Press, 2010) is a learned, readable, richly illustrated text. Fluent in every sense, both readable, eloquent and agile in its insights.

Fra Angelico, "Jesus Apearing to the Magdalene" (1440-41), Convent of San Marco, Florence


Particularly appealing is his survey of the historical progress of Mary Magdalen, through scripture, pious commentary and popular imagery. Next to Jesus of Nazareth, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, no other figure in pantheon of Christian iconography has earned no much, and so variable, attention. Kiely manages to make a believable human being emerge out of the sources, scriptural and artistic. This is his reflection on Cell 1, San Marco:

Since Mary Magdalene and especially the scene with Jesus in the garden outside his tomb were fraught with various and contradictory interpretations, it is fascinating to see how painters “read” Noli me tangere. In decorating the cells of the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico and his assistants chose the encounter as the subject for cell number one. In this depiction (designed by Fra Angelico but probably painted by his assistant Benozzo Gozzoli in 1440), Jesus—who the Gospel says was mistaken by Mary for a gardener—carries a hoe; he could be saying to Mary that he has “work” to do and cannot stop to chat. If so, the artist managed to endow this matter-of-fact moment with a magnificent spiritual serenity. Mary is not weeping or visibly shaken by the sight of Jesus. She kneels in dignified reverence and her gesture is a refined combination of greeting and prayer. She is neither forward nor humble, but rather balanced in an attitude of recognition, regard, and self-composure. Despite the fact that his linen wrapping is supposed to have been left in the tomb, Jesus is fully clothed in stainless white robes, and the position of his feet suggests that he is already beginning his ascent to heaven. He looks at Mary with regal kindness; his hoe could be a scepter or standard. There is no sign of displeasure or suppressed desire. Indeed, the elegant postures and pleasant exchange of looks suggests a minuet in which each partner knows his and her role. This is not a shocking or disturbing scene in which Mary overreacts but a quiet beginning of a heavenly dance.

Titian’s vision of the scene—the Magdalene meets the risen Christ, mistaking him for a gardener—is of a different temper altogether.


Titian, "Noli Me Tangere" (c. 1514), The National Gallery, London


Once again, the scene suggests a dance, but here Jesus appears to play the role of the female partner, elegantly curtsying while modestly attempting to cover himself and avoid the touch of the woman kneeling as if she is making a proposal (or proposition). Mary is literally forward in the painting; her expression is imploring; her long hair and gorgeous red cloak are reminders of her former life of luxury. John’s Gospel does not specify how or where Mary intended to touch Jesus, but painters cannot avoid the details. Titian leaves little doubt that, whatever her intentions, Mary was coming very close to the Lord’s genitals. This is clearly what Titian’s Jesus fears, as his gesture indicates. The painting lends an obviously erotic element to the episode.


Agnolo Bronzino, "Noli Me Tangere" (1561), Louvre, Paris


Kiely is equally adept at describing Bronzino’s weaving together of physical beauty and sexual potential in the altarpiece for the Church of Santo Spirito, in Florence:

Whereas in the Fra Angelico and the Titian the atmosphere is peaceful and private, the figures relatively calm and dignified, in Bronzino’s painting (above) the mood is theatrical, even melodramatic. Both Jesus and Mary Magdalene appear aroused, although in different ways, and they are not alone. There is an audience. Not only are there women and an angel still at the tomb in the background (perhaps representing an earlier moment in the story), but two women also hover near the leading players, gesturing, smiling, and whispering as if spying on and gossiping about the encounter.

True, the figures are twisting and turning in a way reminiscent of Michelangelo, but not everything can be blamed on Michelangelo. In more than one way, the positions of Jesus and Magdalene are the reverse of traditional depictions of the event, including a sketch by Michelangelo. A particularly young and beautiful Jesus approaches from the left (the usual entrance point of Magdalene). His red locks, delicate features, and glowing white skin seem to have borrowed some of the attributes of the repentant sinner with whom he exchanges tender looks. He appears to be running toward, not away from, Magdalene; the odd but graceful twist of his torso suggests a “turning away” that looks very much like a thrusting forward. Mary too is on the run, so much so that if both keep going (as the dynamic of their movement shows they must) they will surely collide. Although Mary’s posture and gestures are wild, she is modestly attired in sober colors and her expression is one of adoration rather than of what Calvin called “stupid excitement.”

Jesus, the “gardener,” has evidently been a good gardener. He carries a shovel, not a hoe, and from the earth behind the two friends lovely flowers bloom. In the background even the tomb is “alive” with possibility: on the right is the dark door of the sepulcher leading nowhere and on the left is an arch opening onto the soft and gorgeous hills of a landscape like paradise. Bronzino shows the Resurrection as a scene of questions, opportunities, pleasures, and risks, all in motion, like life, just as the artist or his patron, an old man facing his own death, might have liked to recall it.

Just lovely. Try to imagine Michael Fried or one of his wanna-be acolytes bringing the painting to life as Kiely does. I have a few caveats of my own in his treatment of certain subjects, but they are no bar to a full-throated recommendation. Overall, Blessed and Beautiful is a ravishing book, its prose as vivid as the paintings it chooses for reflection.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey