Home Arts The resurrection of Mary Magdalene? Two new books examine the elusive biblical figure

The resurrection of Mary Magdalene? Two new books examine the elusive biblical figure

by godlove4241
0 comment

According to the canonical New Testament gospels, Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus who supported his ministry on her own, witnessed his crucifixion and the first witness to his resurrection, and later commissioned to be the apostle of the apostles. Over the following centuries, however, his story was told and his character reimagined. In medieval times, her confusion with an unnamed sexual sinner saw her popularly reframed as a “harlot” and devoutly repurposed as a model of repentance. In popular culture, his character continues to be adapted and adopted for creative purposes, as a romantic aside in the otherwise chaste biography of Jesus provided by the New Testament.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Magdalen, as it’s known, has been a source of enduring fascination for artists, historians and theologians, but we could be forgiven for wondering what’s more to say. Nonetheless, while it would be a stretch to suggest that interest ever really died out, there’s no denying that the elusive biblical woman is once again enjoying a scholarly revival.

These recent posts by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Emeritus Professor of Religious Art and Cultural History and Director of the Catholic Studies Program at Georgetown University, and Philip C. Almond, Emeritus Professor of History of Religious Thought at the University of Queensland, inviting a wider audience to ride the crest of this latest scholarly wave.

Academic but not austere

Apostolos-Cappadona brings its scientific and educational pedigree to Mary Magdalene: A Visual History, producing a thoroughly accessible yet richly rewarding work for a more seasoned audience. The book is shaped by its roots in its 2002 exhibition catalog In Search of Mary Magdalene: Images and Traditions (American Bible Society), with seven essays in Part One that cover written sources, Christian traditions, and creative expressions, followed by ten short reflections in Part Two. The essays are academic but not austere, offering concise clarification of the key elements needed to understand the Magdalen’s developing iconography.

With 65 color plates, this book is a feast for the eyes, but its readability is the real triumph. “Part One: Towards a Visual History” covers a vast ground, but the intricacies of biblical sources, early theological sources, and the stories and traditions of Eastern and Western Christianity are told with compelling clarity. The only disappointment in this impressive volume is that the excellent discussion of feminist readings and the meaning of the Magdalen body is so brief, confined to a three-page coda.

The three-page format becomes the norm in “Part Two: Motifs”, a series of hard-hitting reflections on various artistic tropes: sinner/seductress, penitent, anointed, mourner, witness, preacher, contemplative, reader. The longer final reflection on the ‘feminist icon’ motif more substantially picks up on the discussion of the coda of Part One. Although all sections of Part Two can be covered at greater length, the format works for this volume, whetting the reader’s appetite and giving art an important communicative role.

A visual story opens with an anecdotal preface (including mention of The arts journal) which allows the reader to understand why the work that follows is a labor of love for Apostolos-Cappadona; in the acknowledgements, she describes her interest in the Madeleine as “a lifelong occupation”. A personal and engaging narrative voice is maintained throughout the volume, privileging the reader with the impression of their own private tour through time and space with the expert author as their guide.

Three themes on which this intellectual excursion is apparently centered – “metanoia, anointing and metamorphosis”, which we might otherwise recognize as the penance, anointing and conversion that permeate the story of the Magdalen – are revisited in various ways, but never so explicitly as in this preamble. Yet the afterword, ostensibly a reflection on recent Magdalene exhibitions, reveals that Apostolos-Cappadona is preparing others to take over. In his words, the book is “an introduction to [Magdalene] iconography and cultural history, but hopefully raises new questions for readers leading to the many avenues of Magdalen studies that have yet to be written ‘in memory of her’”.

Almonds Mary Magdalene: A Cultural History pursues an entirely different approach, surveying the reception of the Madeleine in the Western European tradition. The flap copy, claiming it to be the “first major work on the Magdalen in over 30 years”, offers a degree of editorial bluster, but the inferred time scale is highly indicative of its intellectual legacy. Those who recognize this indirect reference to the work of Susan Haskins from 1993, Mary Magdalene: myth and metaphor (HarperCollins), can immediately get a clear idea of ​​the scope and scale of Almond’s project. Despite early acknowledgment of Haskins’ work, references in footnotes are surprisingly sparse (especially given that the volume ends with an epilogue on the myth), but this perhaps indicates how much scholarship by Magdalene Almond was inspired.

A model of repentance: that of Donatello Penitent Magdalen (circa 1453-55) the isolated watch in the desert

Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence © George M. Groutas

Cultural welcome

Like at Haskins Myth and metaphor, A cultural history establishes a narrative thread through centuries of cultural reception of the biblical figure, and covers an impressive range of material. The first two chapters deal with biblical and other contemporary texts and the intricacies of medieval accounts of the Magdalene’s life. A no-nonsense but uncynicistic account of the various relic traditions between the fifth century and the Protestant Reformation follows. The final three chapters follow the chronological structure, although their expanded scope allows them to benefit from the more thematic approach that has been applied.

In “Mary Divided: Sacred and Profane”, the Magdalen’s involvement in ecclesial acrimony is well framed in its larger modern day context. Likewise, “Many Magdalenes: Redeemed and Redeeming” offers a concise look at the Magdalene archetype in 19th-century discussions of women’s roles and morality. The final chapter, dealing with contemporary concerns of The “Da Vinci Code” For The Gospel of Jesus’ Wifeis arguably the hardest for the reader to navigate, though Almond does an admirable job of carving his way through these ever-expanding wildernesses.

The 29 color plates that open this volume could lead people to believe that A cultural history will explore artistic traditions in more detail, and it’s hard to argue that this is a complete cultural history without a more substantial engagement with the visual. Presenting this book as a sort of biography (like Almond’s other recent publications, including The Antichrist: A New Biography, 2020, also for Cambridge University Press) would have avoided the distraction of a sense of missed opportunities. Fortunately, the coincident publication of the Apostolos-Cappadona book A visual story means readers don’t have to worry.

For two self-proclaimed stories, A visual story And A cultural history are particularly forward-looking. Both offer novel treatments of a long-established topic, and both illuminate the potential for revitalizing the study of Madeleine’s reception. Although not intended as such, these books are ideal accompanying texts, serving as engaging primers for anyone interested in how the story of the Magdalen has been told. Almond provides the most accessible summary yet of scholarly history so far, and Apostolos-Cappadona’s engaging and intelligent assessment of artistic interpretation reminds the reader that the Magdalen is a subject that still matters.

Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Mary Magdalene: A Visual History, T&T Clark/Bloomsbury, 176pp, 65 color illustrations, £17.99 (hb), published 23rd Feb 2023

Philip C. Almond, Mary Magdalene: A Cultural HistoryCambridge University Press, 350pp, 29 color illustrations, £30 (hb), published 1 Dec 2022

Siobhan Jolley specializes in the portrait of Mary Magdalene. She is Senior Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery, London, Visiting Lecturer in Religions and Theology at King’s College London, and Honorary Fellow at the Center for Biblical Studies, University of Manchester.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

@2022 – All Right Reserved. Designed and Developed by artworlddaily