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Mary the Great

Who was she really? Can we even agree on what to call her? Is she Mary Magdalene or Mary Magdalen; Mary of Magdala or The Magdalene; maybe simply Madeleine?

Her proper name aside (which would have been Miryam in Hebrew or Maryam in Aramaic), we know that she was very important among the Lord’s disciples – so much so that she’s mentioned in the Gospels more often than most of the apostles.

Luke (8:2-3) tells us she “had been cured of evil spirits” and that “seven demons had gone out” of her, and Mark says so too, a detail he adds to the story of her visit to the tomb and Christ’s appearance to her in the garden after His Resurrection. When she told the apostles of the Lord’s rising, they didn’t believe her. (Mk 16:9-11)

Matthew mentions her three times (27:56 and 61 and 28:1), again in the context of Easter. And John, witness to the Crucifixion, notes that Mary Magdalene was at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary, wife of Clopas. (Jn. 19:25)

John also records her presence at the tomb (20:1) on that greatest of Sunday mornings. She – among all the other followers of Jesus – was first to see the empty tomb.

But John also gives us the remarkable fact that she was the first to be in the presence of the risen Lord. Presumably, she’d returned with Peter and John to the tomb. (Though they doubted her report, they obviously thought enough of her to investigate.) In any case:

Then Simon Peter came. . .[and] went into the tomb. . . .Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

I say “presumably” above because Mary may have come back on her own. In any event, John writes that later Mary Magdalene “stood weeping outside the tomb.” Clearly, this is her later report to the evangelist, since John has told us that he and Peter had headed home.

It’s now that Mary goes into the sepulcher, sees two angels, and talks to them. They ask why she’s crying. She explains. Then, again, presumably, she’s outside, tears still flowing, and sees a man, whom she supposes to be a gardener or caretaker. The man asks: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Then, odd to my mind, given that she thought him a groundskeeper, she pleads for the missing body of Jesus.

Then the Lord says her name, and she knows it is He.

*Click on the image to expand it

This much more or less everybody knows, even if the point of reference is nothing more than a widescreen Biblical epic. And in those movies, Mary Magdalene is mostly a supporting player. (An exception may be Dallas Jenkins’ ongoing The Chosen.)

Yet she is the first! The first certain witness to the thing Paul would call the heart of the faith. (1 Corinthians 15:14) She didn’t flee when all the men did. She didn’t hide.

Curiously, she has long been thought to be two or even three of the women mentioned in the New Testament: the unnamed sinner at the banquet in Simon the Pharisee’s house, washing/anointing Christ’s feet with her tears; the sister of Lazarus and Martha who anoints the Lord with nard; and, of course, the named Mary Magdalene who was intending to anoint the Lord’s body but found His tomb empty. St. Gregory the Great thought so. Fr. Hugh Pope noted in 1910 [1] that the harmony of the accounts of anointing make it likely that all are Magdalene. Our esteemed colleague Michael Pakaluk makes a similar point in Mary’s Voice in the Gospel of John [2], as did Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky here [3].

Magdala, by the way, may not be a place, but a title meaning something like “the great.”

I’ve dived into this “history” of Mary Magdalene as a preface to discussing (and displaying) Domenico Tintoretto’s beautiful portrait of her above. If you are familiar with the art of Tintoretto, it’s likely it’s the work of Domenico’s father, Jacopo. (I hope to do a column soon about Jacopo’s “Last Supper,” another remarkable painting.)

Domenico Tintoretto’s “Penitent Magdalene” (Magdalena Penitente) was painted between 1598-1602. Like his father, Domenico painted crowded scenes full of action, but he is best remembered now as a portraitist. He painted distinguished people (nobles, gentlemen, politicians, ambassadors, and clerics), and he painted some Biblical figures, none more lovely than his Mary Magdalene.

She seems more wistful than remorseful. She has retreated to a cave, where she reads by the illumination of a crescent moon. She prays and contemplates. What does she contemplate? Her sins, we suppose. Or her mission to come, or her death, perhaps?

Heavenly light pours in, above and to the right. Mary’s red hair – so often in art she’s a redhead – shimmers in the moonlight. She wears a garment that seems woven of reeds, although it also resembles snakeskin. Snakes shed their skins; Mary has shed her sins.

But she is not nude, which I mention because other painters have often portrayed her so – as though she has returned to the Garden, back to original innocence. It’s likely the nudity was deployed by artists not just symbolically by sometimes cynically – a marketing tool, although one that required convincing a lascivious patron of its holy truth. The à la Madeleine style – relaxed or even euphoric nudity (see various Magdalene in Ecstasy paintings) – has been a consistent theme in art since the Middle Ages.

Domenico Tintoretto was having none of that.

He gives us Magdalene post-Resurrection, youthful and beautiful. A crucifix and a skull symbolize her new faith and her earthly destiny. Below the crucifix is what may be two links in a chain: bondage to sin broken by Christ. Or the symbol of infinity/eternity? [Update: Two knowledgeable readers have suggested a more accurate interpretation: it’s an open jar of ointment.]

She was a model of true devotion, and – except for Our Lady – Mary Magdalene may be the Bible’s greatest woman.


*Image: Penitent Magdalene by Domenico Tintoretto, bet. 1598 and 1602 [Capitoline Museums, Rome]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Robert P.Imbelli’s Christ the Giver of the Spirit [4]

Robert Royal’s Did Jesus Conquer Death? [5]

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.