Mary Magdalen(e)

Mary Magdalen, Mary of Magdala, Mary the Magdalene, Maria Maddalena.  No matter how her name is styled, as one of the last to see the crucified Christ entombed and the first to see and recognize the risen Christ, she is arguably the second most important Mary who appears in the Biblical accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, second only to his mother, the Virgin Mary.  This article will not attempt to sort out which of the many mentions of a Mary that occur in the Bible refer to this particular Mary, nor will it take up, beyond a superficial level, the great body of legend that gives an account of her life after the Bible narrative ends, nor will it take sides in the debate over whether or not this Mary was a prostitute or otherwise a woman of loose morals.  It is enough that the artists upon whose work cameos were based believed her to be so.

She is nonetheless Saint Mary Magdalen, so, as any saint, may have a halo, although frequently does not.  Items that often appear with her are a lidded jar for the precious ointment or perfume that figures in the story of Martha and Mary or that was used in preparing the crucified body for entombment, a skull, a book—presumably a Bible—and a cross or crucifix.  Luxuriant hair is also proper to her, as is some degree of undress.

It seems as though the majority of artistic depictions were originally, or have come to be, labeled The Penitent Magdalen, emphasizing her supposedly deeply sinful history.  One of the best known is the sculpture by Antonio Canova, first shown to the people of Napoleon's Paris by Sommariva, who was so taken with his acquisition he gave her a room of her own.



The original work included a gilt bronze cross she holds across her lap, omitted in the copy made for the Hermitage.  The image is really one as much of bereavement as of repentance; the feelings of loss and tenderness are palpable.  The carver of the third shell piece substituted the jar for the skull.  Perhaps a concession to the squeamish (the carver of the lava piece made up for it); perhaps a way of making the scene more about her loss than about her subsequent years of penance and reflection, although her plain, rope-girt tunic indicates she is now in that phase of her life.  The cross is a simple one of lashed sticks she has made for herself in remembrance.  "The Sorrowing Magdalen" would have been as apt.

 GuercinoMagdalenCastFinding the original of this Magdalen required some professional assistance (our great thanks to Dr. Christina Ferando) because a generally reliable source, the index to the Paoletti collection of glass paste impressions, states the cameo is based on a painting, at that time also in the possession of the avid collector Sommariva, by Guido Reni.GuercinoMagdalen  While Reni did indeed render this subject many times, the author of this painting is Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Il Guercino ("the squinter").  Here we have most of Mary's attributes present, lacking only the jar.  While she too has come to be known as The Penitent, the presence of the open Bible suggests she is at prayer.

As is so often the case, the constraints of the cameo oval or circle affected the composition somewhat: The standing crucifix became upright; the figure's chin, and therefore gaze, lifted accordingly.  She now seems engaged with the cross instead of with the text before her.


A more rarely seen cameo Magdalen is The Reading Magdalen, by Correggio (Antonio Allegri da Correggio), which was copied by other artists, such as Cristofano Allori.


MysteryMagdalenPaintingIf we could but slip her gown back over her shoulder, the figure to the right would surely be the Virgin Mary, much as Guido Reni depicted her in his Immaculate Conception, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mary as conceived in the mind of God, before Time, before Sorrow.  Here too is the serene, radiant countenance, eyes heavenward in communion, fingers gently steepled in prayer.  Conventionally, the Magdalene clasps her hands in supplication; her eyes roll back in rapture.  And yet we know it is she, the single bared shoulder tells us so.



We know who she is, but not who painted her.  There are at least five copies of this painting extant, the one shown above plus one other, which are on board, and several others, all on canvas.  One of the latter bears a name and address on the back: T.BERTI/ 19 Borgo d. Jacopo/ Firenze.  Evidently the Florentine address influenced the artistic judgment of the auction house Bonhams, who described it as a 19th century work in the manner of Carlo Dolci, but this is as likely to be an advertisement for a dealer rather as to be the name of the artist.  She can be found more than once among the pages of WikiGallery, as, yet again, The Penitent Magdalen (in a feigned oval).  There is really nothing here to suggest penance, none of the beseeching, imploring attitude seen in so many depictions.  This is a contemplative Magdalen.

All examples of the painting are considered to date to the 19th century, most are perceived as being copies of an original by an artist of the Bolognese School, which is to say in the manner of the 17th century Baroque painter Guido Reni, of one of his followers, or of one of their followers, e.g., "circle of Eisabetta Sirani".  (See also Beatrice Cenci.)  She is certainly done in the style of Reni.  However, all of his known Magdalens adhere to convention: if the hands are clasped, the fingers are interlaced; if her focus is heavenward, the eyes are rolled well up into their sockets and the head thrown back.  One must suspect that this painting is 19th century all the way, either an homage or a deliberate fraud.  She must have been much circulated in her day, to survive into ours in cameo representation.

MysteryMagdalenHardstoneThe cameo to the right is the only example we have seen as yet executed in hardstone.  We can wonder whether the carver positioned the head and face farther back than in the painting or in any of the shell cameos as an artistic choice, perhaps to bring her closer to the convention of Mary in ecstasy, or because he was copying from another painting or cameo in which this alteration had already been made.

MagdalenIvoryThe indications that this figure is Mary Magdalen are subtle and leave the identification somewhat uncertain.  None of the objects associated with her are present; her shoulders are well covered by her robe; her head and eyes are not in the throes of ecstasy. But there are features supporting the identification: the halo of a saint; the curly, lush hair; and, most telling, her exposed ear.  It is not much, as nudity goes, yet it is difficult to imagine an artist rendering any other holy figure with this particular touch.  Here again the oval frame limits the horizontal area available for carving.  The artisan could have bared one shoulder, but the frame would then have cut through the image.  A final feature is the material; ivory carving was a specialty of the French port town Dieppe.  Religious scenes and figures constituted a large part of the work by Dieppois artisans and France is where the veneration of Mary Magdalen is most developed.  Paula Lawlor, proprietor of Magdalene Publishing, was consulted about this piece and concurred with the interpretation of her as the Magdalene.


MagdalenHabilleThis lava cameo would appear to be inspired by the Magdalen of Il Guercino, shown above.  A rare example of a lava cameo en habillé,  the flowing hair and arms crossed over her breast, preventing her robe slipping any further, confirm the identification, despite the rather odd addition of a sapphire necklace.





Cameos that show Mary with Jesus are often of Jesus forgiving Mary her sins, but seem also to assume a tenderness between them not always present in other artistic renderings.  We have yet to see a cameo depicting the post-resurrection encounter between the two of them, when he tells her not to touch him (Noli me tangere), even though Titian and many other painters found this a compelling subject.


Last, but very much not least, are these two magnificent Magdalens.  The agate cameo from the workshop of the Miseroni family of jewelers/lapidary artists, and now in the Hermitage, employs the natural layers of the stone to create a veil for the sorrowing figure.  The commesso piece, by Ottavio Miseroni, utilizes an assortment of stones, shell and coral to create a full color portrait.