In his 1750 painting, Giaquinto depicts Mary Magdalene weakly leaning against a rock looking upwards at a crown of thorns carried by a cherub. However, a closer archangel tries to direct her attention upwards to heaven, but Mary is focused on the crown instead. A crowd of cherubim looks on from the cliffs above her. A book lays open, propped up between the rock and a skull, a crucifix resting atop it.
This painting is very reminiscent of the 1565 version of Titian’s painting by the same name. It is probable that Giaquinto was inspired by Titian’s work, but with some additions and personal alterations. It is still a unique and original piece that stands on its own.
I believe this painting is based off of a legend that Mary Magdalene lived out the end of her life in the cliffs of St. Baume near Marseille, France. For thirty years she lived in complete seclusion performing penances. She fasted to the point that she would have died of starvation if not for visits from angels who gave her communion as her only source of food. A hermit once witnessed the angels carrying her to heaven amid celestial music. The title, setting and scenery of the painting are all clearly indicative that this is the same legend being portrayed.
It is also striking that Mary has a rather masculine appearance in this painting. My initial impression was that the artist intended for her to have an androgynous look; perhaps this is even an allusion to the hermaphrodite of esoteric philosophies.
The Spencer Encyclopedia states that the positive aspect of the hermaphrodite is “an emblem of spiritual union” and its negative features are represented by moral lassitude and sexual overindulgence. All of these hermaphroditic traits, both positive and negative, are portrayed by the image of an androgynous penitent Mary Magdalene.
Further investigation brought me to a quote from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas:
“Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
It should be noted that this passage is not meant to be sexist; it is in fact expressing the opposite. In context, Jesus stated earlier in the narrative:
“They said to Him, ‘Shall we then, as children, enter the Kingdom?’
Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the
female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter [the Kingdom].’”
Here we see the view of the hermaphrodite as the perfected person. Mary Magdalene was rumored to be a prostitute prior to becoming a disciple of Jesus. Afterward, she is not only reformed but becomes the most prominent of the women of the New Testament as well as earning a place in all apocryphal Christian texts from the Pistis Sophia to the aforementioned Gospel of Thomas.
Even if Giaquinto did not intend for Mary Magdalene to be seen as androgynous and it was simply his style, given the subject matter and the interpretations I have offered above, it is really a moot point as to whether it was his intention.
The skull depicted is easily identified as a memento mori and the book portrayed is likely the Bible. With the crucifix, these three items tossed together makes a statement about life, death and the possibility of salvation.
The Bible is open to a page with a drawing. Zooming in, a bird flying in the center of a circle, possibly the sun, becomes evident. Below the disk, one finds two human figures facing each other, and a third standing behind them looking outwards is vaguely visible. The person on the left seems to be stretching his arms towards the other person, but it is just not clear what they are doing. I do regret not noticing this detail when I saw the original at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.
My first thought was that this might be John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the Jordan river. The bird would be the dove descending to Jesus.
This would be fitting with the overall message of redemption of the work. A mystical baptism, penance, hermaphroditism and the crown of thorns all serve to blur the distinction between Mary and Jesus in a true Imitatione Christi.
To me, this work of art is a very beautiful symbol of the religious experience. Mary’s expression of calm resolve as she gazes unflinchingly at the crown of thorns speaks volumes. It is telling that she pays no attention to the archangel who rings a bell above her bible and points heavenward; instead she is focused on the matter at hand. In fact, Mary looks right through the archangel, completely ignoring the bell (representative of the celestial music), and the pomp of the angelic audience is forsaken for the same thorny crown worn by Christ. This tells me that she is not just a recluse hoping for a worldly heaven, but rather a genuine saint who is more concerned with the pain and trials of this world.
Keep reading with part 2: The Penitent Magdalene Revisited
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