I have long been intrigued by the prominent Biblical figure of Mary Magdalene — the wayward sinner, afflicted with demons, who became a most devoted disciple. She has a universal allure that can perhaps be attributed to the countless beautiful depictions of her, but — given the strength of its pull — it is likely much deeper.
Artists throughout history have portrayed the Magdalene upon canvas — some more accurately than others. The representation that most powerfully captured my attention was that of Artemisia Gentileschi’s “The Penitent Mary Magdalene.” The vibrant colors and masterful realism first enchanted me. The depicted female figure, bathed in light, is arresting, but has evidently cast off all objects of vanity. She emerges from a striking yellow gown (symbolic of her former occupation) with the pure, bare flesh of a newborn. Her bare foot reaches out towards a life renewed, her hand clutches her chest where once there was a heart of stone, and her eyes are lifted upwards, away from the world.
The woman seems to transcend the one-dimensionality of canvas, leaning out toward the source of light that illumines her and even probing my own heart. She seems to desire to impart her story — the darkness of sin, the merciful physician who healed, the birth into light. This tale of redemption, she seems to say, is not mine alone. Though still robed in her scandalous past, she does not cower. Rather, she bears herself with the confidence of one who has been touched by the savior, tilting her body forward, away from the trappings of sin. “Through my fault, through my fault,” she whispers, adding, “But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” She simultaneously asserts her fallen humanity and revels in the mercy of a loving God.
The artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, knew such penitence and salvation on a deeply personal level. An artistic prodigy who studied under her renowned father, she fell into a life of scandal at a young age. Because of this, she exiled herself to Florence where she eventually found redemption and great success as a painter. One cannot help but think that the young woman felt an affinity with the saint who had also risen from the ashes of a dark past. She likely found consolation in acquainting herself with her subject, identifying with her, learning from her and seeking to emulate her.
Mary Magdalene in Scripture
Truly, Mary Magdalene is one of the most relatable figures in the Bible — and not just to painters with a past. She epitomizes every soul’s desperate need for the healing touch of Christ. She was a woman who had come face-to-face with her vast imperfection and humbly accepted Christ’s superabundant mercy. Her humility did not run dry after the Good Physician restored her to life, though. Filled with ardent love for Christ and wholly aware of her ever-present human weakness that could easily lead her again into temptation, she followed him as closely as possible. She, more than almost any figure aside from the Blessed Virgin, trails Jesus throughout his ministry. Even when the apostles (save for John) fled during Christ’s passion and death, Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the cross. And it was she who first witnessed his glorious resurrection.
It is the recounting of this event by Matthew that perhaps best illustrates Mary Magdalene:
“Then the angel said to the women in reply, ‘Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said.’ … Then they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them. They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage” (Mt 28:5-10).
The phrase “fearful yet overjoyed” points both to Mary’s weakness and strength. It humanizes her and brings her to a level that all can understand. We often think of saints as flawless beings who followed Jesus without hesitation, doubt or trepidation. This passage disproves that notion, however, clearly stating that Mary Magdalene was afraid. Yet, she did not allow this emotion to keep her from proclaiming the good news that had been imparted to her. Her joy in Christ’s love and salvation, of which she had so clearly tasted, overcame her fear.
It is this raw humanity and admittance of weakness that makes Mary Magdalene so alluring. Her reliance on the Lord alone thrust her into a life of loving discipleship. She did not compose great theological works, nor found convents and monasteries, nor suffer martyrdom. She simply took Christ’s hand and did not let go. She understood her childlike nature, her propensity to stumble. Therefore, she clung to the one who could keep her aright.
A friend for when I’m weak
Fear, worry and anxiety have crept into my own heart all too often. Much of the time, it feels like a daily struggle — especially during the past several months. The pandemic has altered life in dramatic ways. My husband and I do not have any family within 1,500 miles. We have our first child on the way, and the pregnancy has been complicated. In the most difficult hours, the feelings of smallness and helplessness can become overwhelming. But the Lord tells us time and again, “Do not be afraid.” I hear him speak these words into my heart, yet fear tries to break in like a relentless battering ram. This constant battle can weary one very quickly.
Mary Magdalene has become a sure guide during these battles. She reminds me that we, as human beings, are weak. We are powerless, small, vulnerable. However, it is in this weakness, this powerlessness that we find our strength. This weakness enables us to turn completely to the Lord, to take hold of him and to not let go. If you but cling to him, she reminds me, fear will be overcome by joy. Lean into your littleness and be dependent upon him. I cannot overcome the trials in my life alone. I need the Good Physician — the same one who drove the seven demons out of Mary Magdalene — to drive the darkness out of my own heart and to flood me with peace, hope and that never-dimming light.
One does not have to stumble through scandal like Artemisia Gentileschi to feel close to Mary Magdalene, for she is every soul who follows Christ, searches for Christ and has yet to encounter Christ. She is you, and she is me. She is one well acquainted with weakness and a need for the Lord — attributes we all share. Mary Magdalene is one who performed no “great” deeds, but achieved greatness through surrendering completely to Christ. She is one who shows us that a life of light can be had by all, because darkness can always be overcome. St. Mary Magdalene longs for us to walk in her humble footsteps — directly behind our savior.