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 Mary uses to soothe the feet of Jesus when he visits their home, 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.
Finding 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. While Reni did indeed render this subject many times, the author of this painting is Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Il Guercino ("the squinter"). As with cameos of Canova's Magdalen, cutters might substitute her jar for the skull of the original, creating a less stark image. 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.
If we could but slip her gown back over her shoulder, the figures below would surely be the Virgin Mary, much as Guido Reni depicted her in his Immaculate Conception, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the serene, radiant countenance, eyes heavenward in communion, fingers gently steepled in prayer. By contrast and convention, the Magdalen clasps her hands in supplication; her eyes roll back in rapture. And yet, the Virgin would never be depicted with a single bared shoulder, and so these cameos, and the painting that inspired them, have been described repeatedly as Mary Magdalen, not just by cameo lovers but by professional auctioneers as well, when selling one of the number of copies of the painting, which are usually recognized as being in the manner of Guido Reni, although never described as copies of any specific work by Reni himself.
Although the way this composition mixes conventions for both Marys was troubling, and the presence in some cameo examples of an anchor, just visible behind her, which does not appear in any of the paintings on which they are based, was puzzling, the lady was previously assigned to this page. After further research, she is now to be found, with a few more sisters, in the article on The Anchor of Hope.
The 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.
This 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.