The Many Lives of Mary Magdalene: A Selection of Images from Bridwell Library Special Collections
To remedy a centuries-old exegetical dilemma of forming a cohesive narrative of the numerous Marys and unnamed women in the Four Gospels, sixth-century pope Gregory the Great configured Mary Magdalene from a synthesis of distinct New Testament women. The Magdalene thenceforth assumed a number of roles. Once a sinner, the Magdalene in her contrition became a devout follower of Christ. Present at the Crucifixion and the Entombment, she was also the first witness to the Resurrection.
Depicted by artists in these and other gospel scenes leading up to, and commemorating, the death and Resurrection of Christ, the iconography of the Magdalene was a reflection of the age in which her image was created. In the medieval period, Mary Magdalene was cast as the careworn sinner turned penitential saint, often lamenting the crucified Christ. In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the Magdalene’s human traits were emphasized. Her hair, alternately bound in intricate coiffures or unloosed in long, enveloping cascades, symbolized the Magdalene’s femininity and hinted at her latent sensuality.
Mary Magdalene’s pictorial narrative continued well after the death of Christ, spanning the course of her lifetime. The composite saint was featured by artists such as Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) as the ascetic contemplative who retreated to the desert to live out the rest of her days. To develop more fully the Magdalene’s character as the penitent recluse who has forsaken her former life of alleged carnality, the Magdalene’s hermitical life was modeled after, or sometimes conflated with, that of Saint Mary of Egypt. After spending forty-seven years in the desert nourished by only three loaves of bread, Mary of Egypt often was depicted at the end of her life, recounting to the monk Zosimus her days as a prostitute in Alexandria and her subsequent repentance. While each saint bore exclusive visual symbols, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt shared in common the skull as a focus of meditative reflection. Their two image types often depicted the redeemed sinner in different phases of life, thus serving as interesting counterpoints.
To provide further background for the female saint as presented in Ribera: ‘Mary Magdalene’ in a New Context, Bridwell Library Special Collections of the Perkins School of Theology has kindly lent a group of rare books to the Meadows Museum. Selected with the expertise of Dr. Eric M. White, Curator of Special Collections, these exquisite books portray both the Magdalene and Mary of Egypt in various manifestations. Included in this selection are a number of recent acquisitions, for example the Solitudo sive vitae foeminarum anachoritarum, a set of engravings by Jacques Honervogt (fl. 1654-56) of female hermits; a first edition of Jacques Callot’s (1592-1635) Les images de tous les saincts et saintes de l’année: suivant le martyrologe romain [Images of Saints for Every Day of the Year], which was one of the engraver’s final works, dedicated to the Cardinal Duc de Richelieu; or a rare, complete, first-edition suite of the life of Christ with engravings after Flemish artist Maarten de Vos (1532-1603). Also on display from Bridwell Library will be Franciscan Nicolaus de Lyra’s (c. 1270-1349) commentary on the Bible, printed and beautifully illuminated in the fifteenth century; as well as a fifteenth-century German translation of Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend (c. 1260), a popular compendium of the saints and an important iconographic source for artists such as Ribera.
This exhibition has been organized by the Meadows Museum with assistance from Bridwell Library and has been funded by a generous gift from The Meadows Foundation.